Thinking About Leaving Your Local Church? Think Again…

In our fast-food culture of leased cars and changing telephone companies, many local churches have not fared well. Church shopping, hopping, and dropping have become normal—so normal that many people reading this probably haven’t thought very much about it. Certainly, this cavalier attitude toward local church membership is common among evangelicals today. But have we paused to consider whether it’s biblical?

Some get bored and wander off to a more exciting church. Some get angry and stomp off, taking several members with them. Some change their minds about a particular doctrinal issue and realign themselves with a church that seems purer. Some people are just in a rut of discontent, staying for a few months or years then straying on to something, well, new. But when we contrast this modern epidemic of forsaking our membership in a local church with the two positive and two negative biblical examples of leaving church and the long history of church commitment, we probably ought to re-think this issue.

First, on the positive side, Christians in the Bible changed churches because of physical relocation. In Acts 18 Aquila and Priscilla changed from one local church to another when they moved to a new city. Second, people left churches for ministry opportunities. Ministers and missionaries departed local churches to serve elsewhere—always with the blessing of the sending churches (Acts 10:23; 15:40; 2 Cor. 8:16–18). On the negative side, the New Testament presents examples of people leaving the church because of discipline (Matt. 18:15–17; 1 Cor. 5:11–13), always with the hope that the disciplined believer would repent and return to fellowship. Also, false teachers and heretics left in apostasy, departing in willful rebellion and often taking followers with them (1 John 2:18–19). [Some have pointed to the surprising skirmish between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:37–40 as an example of separation due to differing ministry strategies. But this incident had nothing to do with leaving a local church—both departed from Antioch with the church’s blessing. And besides, this text described an unfortunate event; it did not prescribe how to handle conflict.]

Relocation . . . ministry . . . discipline . . . apostasy.

These four biblical examples—two positive, two negative—are legitimate departures from local congregations and serve not to weaken, but to strengthen, both the local church and the universal body of Christ. And these examples make one thing clear: the common reasons Christians give for forsaking their covenant with a local church just don’t measure up. If believers take the Bible as the guide and love as the rule, they should never simply stomp out of their churches in anger or slip quietly out the back door.

Of course, we can’t assume that the Bible covers every legitimate reason for leaving a church. Sometimes churches become so corrupt or doctrinally impure that the marks of a true or healthy church are lost. Other times God may want certain believers in certain places to accomplish certain things. However, we must always remember that local church commitment is necessary for spiritual growth (Heb. 10:24–25; Eph. 4:4–16). And we must recall that we entered into church membership as a covenant relationship—as serious as marriage. If we keep these facts in mind, we’ll have the right heart for considering a godly decision about whether or not to leave, and how to do it appropriately.

Some practical principles can point us in the right direction as we consider God’s mind about leaving church.

First, communicate and seek counsel. Discuss your options with the church leadership. Ask trusted Christian friends or mentors whether your reasons for leaving are legitimate. The issues leading you out of the church likely can be resolved—to the benefit of everyone. Perhaps your confidants will help you discover that the Lord is, in fact, leading you to another ministry elsewhere. However, simply stomping off in a huff is rude and immature. And keeping your real reasons for leaving a secret is usually a sign that your conscience isn’t clear.

Second, be prudent and discerning. Don’t make an emotional or quick decision. Just as in natural families, people hurt people in churches. You can count on it. But my reaction to a harsh word or other offense reveals as much about my own spiritual immaturity as it does about the immaturity of the offender. Don’t make a decision based on anger, fear, resentment, or pain, but on the principles of God’s Word. And don’t turn everything into a “doctrinal issue.” Everybody disagrees on some interpretations of Scripture, but not every doctrinal disagreement is worth rushing for the door. In fact, I can count the absolutely essential marks of orthodoxy on two hands; if your list of “fundamentals” is much longer, you may have slipped into exaggerated dogmatism. Keep your eye on the center—the gospel of Jesus Christ— and show grace in the dozens of disputable matters.

Finally, seek God’s will. Even though God wants us to be faithful to our local churches and to contribute positively to its ministry, we can’t limit God’s direction in our lives. Though my tone may sound absolute, the truth is that occasionally God may want people elsewhere for his own purposes. However, we must still make transitions cautiously—communicating with leadership, exercising prudence, and seeking counsel. To hop from church to church without earnestly (and honestly) seeking the Lord’s will in the matter shows contempt for the temple he loves and can even result in discipline from God (1 Cor. 3:16–17).

In light of God’s high view of local church commitment and the clear teaching of Scripture (Heb. 10:24–25; Eph. 4:4–16), we should prayerfully consider each decision we make regarding our local churches—from membership and attendance to our level of involvement and decisions regarding departure. If we seek to honor him and demonstrate genuine love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Lord will guide us in wise, prudent, and godly decisions regarding our involvement in the local church.

So, are you thinking about leaving church? Think again.


[This essay is excerpted from chapter 7 of RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). © Michael J. Svigel, 2012. Originally posted March 18, 2012 at]

Early Registration Open for The Table Conference April 19-20, 2013

On April 19–20, 2013, I will have the privilege of serving as one of six presenters when The TableDallas Seminary launches The Table conference series. The theme of the conference will be “Presenting God to Those Who See Christianity Differently.” Three major questions will each be addressed by two experts in the respective fields, one from Dallas Seminary and another guest invited to The Table: “Which Jesus?” with Lee Strobel and Darrel Bock . . . “Which Bible?” with Dan Wallace and Craig Blomberg . . . and “Which Christianity?” with Michael Svigel and Charles Hill.

My topic relates directly to my area of Ph.D. dissertation work: the question of original Christian identity. My presentation will revolve around what it meant to be “Christian” in the minds of the earliest Christian communities. Were they a motley crew of squabbling factions held together only by a common name? Or was there something solid, unchangeable, and identifiable that held them together in a common identity despite a diversity of teachers, texts, and traditions? How does our answer to this question affect how we view the boundaries and limits of Christian identity today?

Registration is now open. Consider attending this conference with your pastoral or leadership staff, elders, or anybody interested in learning how to interact with these vital issues in an informed way. It would also be a great conference for skeptics, doubters, or those young believers with a lot of honest questions about the Christian faith. You can find information on the conference at

The conference will be held at Bent Tree Bible Church in Carrollton, Texas. I hope to see you there!



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.]

Dealing with the Elephants—Toward a Fuller Doctrine and Practice of Water Baptism (Part 3 of 3)

Elephant in Room“The elephant in the room” is an English idiom that refers to a problem obvious to everybody . . . but avoided by most because addressing it would cause discomfort or embarrassment. In a marriage relationship, the elephant in the room might be intrusive in-laws . . . or a husband’s perpetual under-employment. In a business it might be an unprofitable  product line . . . or a problem employee the boss can’t seem bring herself to fire. In a church the elephant might be a certain ineffective ministry program that drains money and time . . . or a doctrinal issue that could cause major upheaval if brought up at the next elder’s meeting.

When it comes to the doctrine and practice of water baptism, there are a couple “elephants in the room.” The first relates to whether baptism replaces circumcision as the rite of initiation into the community of God’s covenant people. The second regards the relationship between baptism and the forgiveness of sins. Because of the interdependence of the six facets of baptism explored in this series of essays, we have already lightly touched on these issues as we discussed other topics. However, knowing that I would eventually be dealing with these themes head-on, I intentionally avoided those two “elephants in the room.”

The first essay in this series looked at the twofold confessional nature of baptism: 1) confession of faith in the creation-redemption narrative of the triune God and 2) personal association with the atoning death and saving resurrection of Jesus Christ. The second essay examined two practical dimensions of baptism: 3) turning away from a life of sin and 4) pledging a life of holiness in following Christ. This third essay in the series will explore a final category of pairs that will fill out our doctrine and practice of water baptism from a biblical, theological, and historical perspective: the community nature and function of baptism. This category includes 5) baptism as a rite of initiation into the new covenant community and 6) baptism as a mark of official community forgiveness of sin.

Though we have danced around them in the previous essays, I’m now prepared to deal with the elephants directly in this third (though not quite final) installment.

5. Baptism as a rite of initiation into the covenant community (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27)

The place: Jerusalem. The time: Pentecost, ten days after Christ’s ascension. The Holy Spirit has been poured out in a new and powerful way, and the church has been founded. As droves of new converts to the Christian faith pour in, they are initiated into the church. Acts 2:41–42 says, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The order closely follows Christ’s command in Matthew 28:19—“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.” The apostles preached the gospel. Many who heard believed and received the word in faith. In response, they were “added” by means of baptism. Added to what? To that community in which the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers took place. That is, they were added to the church. Acts 6:7 says that as new converts came in, “the number of disciples continued to increase,” and 9:31 says that in the same way “the church . . . continued to increase” throughout Judea and Samaria.

In keeping with the words of Jesus and the practice of the apostles, the New Testament presents water baptism as the means by which the church admitted new disciples into its membership, thus “adding to” and “increasing” its number. In fact, after examination and instruction in basic beliefs and the expected new lifestyle of Christians (see part 1 and part 2 of this series), new believers in Christ were baptized as a mark of covenant initiation into a local church community . . . and thereby also into the visible universal church, of which each particular church is a microcosm. Simply put, believers in Christ who had not received the seal of baptism were not admitted into church membership. This is why the first century manual of church order, The Didache (c. A.D. 50–70), not only instructs baptismal candidates on how to live according to Christ’s teachings, but it also includes specific instructions on how to live in the new covenant community as a faithful member: “My child, night and day remember the one who preaches God’s word to you, and honor him…. Moreover, you shall seek out daily the presence of the saints, that you may find support in their words. . . . In church you shall confess your transgressions, and you shall not approach your prayer with an evil conscience” (Didache 4.1, 2, 12). Thus, in the early church, water baptism was not only a confession of faith and a mark of repentance from sin . . . it was also the rite of initiation into the new covenant community.

In this way, Christian baptism is similar to Hebrew circumcision as the sign of entrance into membership in the covenant community. Just as circumcision was the rite of initiation into the Old Covenant community (Israel), baptism is the rite of initiation into the New Covenant community (the Church). As circumcision meant that the member of the Old Covenant community was obligated to keep the stipulations of the Old Covenant Law (Gal. 5:3), believers in Christ who submit to water baptism are obligating themselves to keep the stipulations of the teachings of Christ and the apostles (Matt. 28:19). It is an altogether different question whether the circumcision of infants in the Old Covenant was intended to transfer to the New in the form of infant baptism. The answer to this question depends on how much continuity exists between the Old and the New. Regardless of where one lands on the issue of infant baptism, the parallel between the two marks of initiation can still be maintained: circumcision for the Old and baptism for the New. Both are to be regarded as rites of initiation into the covenant community.

Both the Bible and the church throughout the centuries have viewed baptism as the outward, visible sign of initiation into the church. Church historian J. N. D. Kelly writes, “From the beginning baptism was the universally accepted rite of admission to the Church” (Early Christian Doctrines, 192). The idea of an “unbaptized Christian” is completely foreign to the Bible and the early church. I know of no credentialed scholar of early Christianity who would suggest that the early church had room for an unbaptized Christian. In fact, our accounts of conversion in the New Testament include baptism. This isn’t a matter of being legalistic. It’s a matter of obedience to the command of Christ (Matt. 28:18) and the teachings of the apostles (2 Tim. 2:2). The burden of proof is therefore on anybody who would admit an unbaptized believer into membership in the new covenant community, the church.

In the same way that a wedding ceremony functions as a public demonstration and pledge of an engaged couple to lifelong marriage, water baptism is the public celebration of our genuine devotion and commitment to Christ and His church. It’s the rite of initiation into the community of other baptized believers, the Body of Christ, and therefore it must precede church membership, observance of the Lord’s Supper, discipleship, and leadership. Baptism is a mark of covenant commitment, rendering us accountable to the church community. Just as Spirit baptism unites us spiritually to Christ and makes us members of his mystical body (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 2:6), so water baptism unites us physically to the visible body of Christ, the church, making us members of his covenant community. Yes, I believe Christians are mystically, spiritually, and permanently united to Christ by the Spirit at the moment they are saved by grace through faith. But this is only recognized, authenticated, and sealed by that saved believer’s entrance into visible membership with a local church.

One final word on this. Often times believers confuse the relationship between the local church and the church universal or “catholic.” They believe that the church universal is invisible, that one is a member of that church apart from any relationship with a local church. However, this is a misunderstanding of the relationship between local and universal. The church universal (“catholic” or “global”) is comprised of all local churches worldwide. It is not an invisible entity that exists apart from local manifestations of the church. So, under ideal circumstances, a new believer should be baptized under the authority of and into membership in a local church. By this act—becoming a member of a local church—he or she also is a member of the church universal, or “catholic.” When a baptized Christian transfers local church membership, he or she doesn’t need to be re-baptized for the new local church any more than a citizen of a country needs reapply for citizenship when he or she moves to another city or state.

In sum, baptism is not only a confession of our Christ-centered, Trinitarian faith and an official turning from sin to a life of holiness. It is also a rite of initiation into the new covenant community, granting the new initiate full rights and privileges of membership in the local and global body of Christ.

6. Baptism as a mark of official community forgiveness (Acts 26:18)

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of A.D. 381 states, “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Although the Greek text of this article of confession is identical to biblical language (with the exclusion of the prepositional phrase “of repentance”), many Protestants balk at any connection between forgiveness of sins and the practice of water baptism. Passages like Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38 become “problem passages” that must be explained . . . or they are regarded as texts that no longer apply to Christians for some reason. However, let me suggest that real forgiveness of sins is granted at the moment of water baptismbut a forgiveness that relates not to the individual’s eternal and invisible relationship with God, but to the saved believer’s relationship to the Christian community. This forgiveness extended by the authority of the Christian church affects a person’s standing with the community, allows him or her to participate in the blessings of the community, and protects the forgiven person from spiritual dangers that lay outside the protection of the community.

To understand the kind of official community forgiveness marked by the rite of baptism, let me come at this from the angle of church discipline. It’s no wonder that in a church culture that has all but abandoned a biblical practice of church membership and discipline, the idea of the church’s authority and responsibility to grant initial covenant community forgiveness through baptism has also fallen out of favor. Let me begin, then, by showing that the gathered local church does, in fact, have authority to grant and withhold official forgiveness to and from its members. Furthermore, God Himself confirms this binding and loosing by withdrawing or extending temporal forgiveness, that is, properly-administered church discipline is accompanied by divine discipline.

In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul instructed the church in Corinth to respond graciously to the repentant sinner who had suffered under the punishment of church discipline. I understand this as a reference to the person who had been officially put out of the church for sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 5:1–13. Since that proper exercise of church discipline, the sinner had repented. Now the church was instructed to show grace and mercy toward him as a brother. He had suffered sufficient “punishment by the majority” (2 Cor. 2:6). How? They had removed him from among their membership (1 Cor. 5:2). In an official assembly of the church, in the name of Jesus Christ and with His authority, the church handed that man over to the domain of Satan “for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor. 5:4–5). With this authority and responsibility to exercise discipline, they judged the sinner “inside the church” by putting him outside the church, obeying the principle of Deuteronomy 13:5 to “purge the evil person from among you.”

In other words, the church had not only the responsibility and authority, but also the obligation, to hold the unrepentant sinner’s stubborn immorality against him, removing him from the church’s membership and fellowship, withholding official community forgiveness from him, and placing him once again in the dangerous realm of Satan, where he would literally stand in mortal danger. What we see happening in the process of church discipline is a suspension of the rights and privileges entered into through baptismal initiation—a reversal, so to speak, of the blessing of the baptized believer in good standing with the church.

The local church, therefore, has the authority, in the name of Jesus and by His power, to withhold temporal forgiveness from the unrepentant sinner. By this official act of righteous “unforgiveness,” the church treats the guilty sinner like “a Gentile and a tax collector,” exercising its authority to hold a person’s sin against him or her. In the context of this authority of church discipline, Jesus said, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (see Matt. 18:18 and its context). Some suggest this authority for binding and loosing was limited only to the apostles. After all, Jesus breathed on the apostles themselves and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). However, as an apostle, Paul himself indicated that the officially gathered church, including its ordained leadership, has this same authority of disciplinary binding and loosing, unforgiving and forgiving: “Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive” (2 Cor. 2:10). They didn’t need to wait for Paul to give the apostolic “okay” to exercise discipline and re-extend forgiveness. In fact, Paul was upset that they hadn’t taken these initiatives on their own . . . demonstrating that the authority to extend and withhold covenant community forgiveness was not merely the prerogative of the apostles, but that of the gathered local church itself.

In light of the whole teaching of the New Testament on this matter, it seems likely that the “keys of the kingdom” mentioned in Matthew 16:19 refer metaphorically to the church’s authority to guard its own gates, explaining why the same language of “binding and loosing” is found there as well. Each duly-led and constituted local church has therefore inherited the apostolic authority of binding and loosing, forgiving and withholding forgiveness—that is, the duty and responsibility for: 1) refusing admission to unbelievers or unrepentant sinners into church membership, 2) admitting believing and repentant sinners into membership, and 3) suspending membership for unrepentant believers. These metaphorical keys for guarding the gateway to the kingdom were not passed from Peter to the Popes, but equally shared by all the apostles who received the Holy Spirit (John 20:23). Nor were they limited merely to a succession of bishops or an ecclesiastical magisterium. Rather, this authority to bind and loose, forgive and withhold forgiveness, is shared today in the post-apostolic age by each local church in union with its ordained leaders, the elders, as Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth indicate (2 Cor. 2:10). In fact, Jesus’s instruction ultimately to take matters of church discipline before the church indicates that the church itself, under its leaders (that is, gathered in an official capacity) had the authority of binding and loosing.

If church discipline, then, is the church withholding official covenant community forgiveness from a believing church member who refuses to repent, and if the church has the authority to subsequently grant forgiveness to him or her when he or she does repent by readmitting him to full fellowship, then water baptism should be seen as the church’s original mark of granting official community forgiveness to the believing, repentant sinner. Yes, it’s the believer’s individual act of repentance from a life of sin, but it’s also the church’s act of forgiveness and admission into the community. With this act of official community forgiveness through the sign of water baptism, the believer is visibly transferred from the world to the church, from the way of death to the way of life, from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. In baptism, the repentant believer turns “from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sin and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in” Jesus Christ (Acts 26:18). In this way we can say with Peter that water baptism “saves” us, not from hell, damnation, and divine wrath—the spiritual salvation which is by grace through faith alone—but from a destructive lifestyle of sin and from the powers of Satan and the spirits of darkness. No wonder the early church quickly associated exorcism and the breaking of the oppression of demons with the act of water baptism! By repenting from a pagan lifestyle and entering into the protection of the church, believers were being really and truly saved from the satanic realm.

Let me be clear. Though water baptism does not bring about God’s eternal forgiveness nor the baptism of the Holy Spirit, water baptism does mark—really and truly and not just metaphorically—the temporal redemption of the sinner from a lifestyle of sin and the spiritual oppression of the devil and his demons. The baptized believer, then, enjoys “a place among those who are sanctified by faith,” that is, among the church, the communion of saints (Acts 26:18).

Therefore, through official church discipline, whereby the same officially gathered church exercises its binding and loosing authority to “unforgive” or “withhold forgiveness” from a baptized believer who refuses to repent, that person is put out of the protection of the community they had entered by baptism. What was accomplished in baptism—official forgiveness—is undone by excommunication. They are now exposed to physical sickness and destruction . . . even death. Any charitable support in the form of food, drink, or financial assistance is no longer received by the stubborn transgressor. And having been cast out from under the umbrella of spiritual protection provided by the church, the unrepentant believer is again exposed to the deceptions and destruction of Satan (see, 1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim 1:20; and perhaps Jas. 5:14–15; 1 John 5:16–17). And as God honors what has been bound or loosed on earth by also binding and loosing in heaven, He will discipline those true believers whom He loves (Heb. 12:5–11). Upon repentance, the once-for-all baptized believer does not get re-baptized any more than a prodigal son who has been kicked out of his parent’s house needs to be adopted when he repents and comes home. Rather, he or she is to be officially “forgiven” by the church and welcomed back into fellowship and communion (2 Cor. 2:10).

There. I have dealt with the elephants in the room: baptism as initiation into the covenant community and baptism as the mark of official community forgiveness. These are probably the two most controversial and difficult teachings regarding water baptism. Most likely they will receive the closest study and scrutiny. But like the idiomatic “elephants in the room,” they can’t be ignored forever. Yes, baptism should function as the rite of initiation into the the new covenant community, just like circumcision marked the initiation into the Old Covenant communtiy. And yes, baptism should function as the church’s mark of official community forgiveness of sins for the newly-initiated member, rendering him or her a “member in good standing” with the community and access to the blessings of God that come only through the ministries of the church.

(NOTE: This series will be concluded in Part 4 of 3: “Riding the Elephant”)

Floating with the Elephant—Toward a Fuller Doctrine and Practice of Water Baptism (Part 2 of 3)

elephant floatingFor as the word of God, by the mysteries which it contains, exercises the understanding of the wise, so usually by what presents itself on the outside, it nurses the simple-minded. It presents in open day that wherewith the little ones may be fed; it keeps in secret that whereby men of a loftier range may be held in suspense of admiration. It is, as it were, a kind of river, if I may so liken it, which is both shallow and deep, wherein both the lamb may find a footing, and the elephant float at large. (Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job, pref. 4)

These words from the preface of Gregory the Great’s Morals on the Book of Job beautifully describe the depth of meaning associated with sacred Scripture. Novices can understand its straightforward message of what to believe and how to live . . . experts can expend a lifetime of scholarly toil wrestling with its profound depth and complex intricacies. Like a lamb wading in the shallows, new believers can refresh in Scripture’s simplicity. Or like an elephant floating in the depths, mature believers can fill their open minds with awestruck wonder. How can the same Scripture be both shallow and deep? Because of “the mysteries which it contains.”

Like Scripture, God has given to the church sacraments, or “mysteries,” which are also both shallow and deep: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Many Christians have been taught only one or two facets of these mysteries, unwittingly exchanging a deep river for a babbling brook. Yes, those who understand just the basic significance of the sacraments are still experiencing the water like a lamb finding a footing in an ankle-deep stream . . . but how much more rich their experience would be if they delve into the depths of these mysteries, floating at large with the elephant in an ocean of meaning!

The first two facets of water baptism discussed in part 1 of this series emphasized the confessional function of the practice—1) a public proclamation of faith in the Trinitarian creation and redemption narrative and 2) a personal association with the death and resurrection of Christ. The next pair treated in this essay emphasize the practical dimensions of baptism—3) repentance from a life of sin and 4) commitment to a life of sanctification.

In the earliest known record of pre-baptismal teaching for Gentile converts to Christianity, The Didache (c. 50–70), we see two very different lifestyles contrasted as “the way characterized by life” and “the way characterized by death” (Didache 1.1). After describing in some detail the new lifestyle of righteousness expected of believers (1.2–4.14) contrasted with the old lifestyle of wickedness expressed by unbelievers (5.1–6.3), the Didache presents the act of baptism itself as that pivotal point at which a believer makes the official, public, one-time turn from the path of sin and death to the path of righteousness and life. Chapter 7 begins, “Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: after you have reviewed all these things [the old lifestyle of death and the new lifestyle of life], baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (7.1–1).

Thus, in the earliest church during the time of the apostles, the single act of baptism simultaneously marked the convert’s official exit from the road of darkness and death and his or her commencement of a journey on the road of light and life (Rom. 6:13; Eph. 5:8; Col. 1:13; 1 Pet. 2:9). In the original practice of Christian baptism, the believer entered the water as the decisive visible act of departing from the broad path that leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13). He or she then came out of the water having committed to traveling the narrow path that leads to life (Matt. 7:14). At that very moment the believer’s entire trajectory—including values and morality—had changed. The baptized believer had once been walking according to the course of this world (Eph. 2:2), but now they had committed to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).

Let’s look briefly at each of these opposite directions of the moral compass—the repentance that turns from a life of sin and a consecration that turns to a life of sanctification.

3. Baptism as Repentance from a Life of Sin (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11)

Since the ministry of John the Baptist, the act of water baptism was connected to repentance from a life of sin. Mark 1:4–5 says, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (see also Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:3). The Greek word for “forgiveness” here is aphesis, indicating a “release.” It could refer to a release from the guilt and consequences of a person’s sins, but it also relates to a release from the life of sin. This is why along with “water for repentance,” John preached that those who were baptized should “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8; Acts 26:20).

Though people sometimes attempt to draw a heavy line between John’s baptism of repentance from a life of sin and the Christian baptism of association with Christ in the name of the triune God, Jesus Himself made it clear that repentance, baptism, and a release from a life sin were meant to continue on in the proclamation of the church. In Luke 24:47, the resurrected Jesus said that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” This corresponds with the mandate in Matthew 28:18, “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.” Thus, the practice of baptism as the mark of repentance from a life of sin continues from the ministry of John the Baptist into the Christian era. With that turning from a life of sin, the baptized believer experiences a “release” (aphesis) from its enslavement.

In another place, I have shown that the references to “repentance” and being once “enlightened” in Hebrews 6:1, 3, and 6, when read in light of an early Christian catechetical background like that found in the Didache, reveals that “baptism” was often used interchangeably with the words “repentance” and “illumination.” The former, repentance, referred to the turning from sin to righteousness. Illumination referred to the transferal from the domain of darkness to the domain of light. Thus, when Peter cried out to the Jews, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38), the baptism itself was their act of repentance, releasing them from a life of sin, just like John’s baptism had marked the same conversion for sinful Jews.

The implication is clear: at baptism, believers were not simply confessing their personal faith in the triune God and associating with the death and resurrection of Christ. They were publicly testifying to their repentance from a life of sin. This is why baptism was often metaphorically described as “washing away sin” (Acts 3:19). Just as the blood of Christ spiritually and invisibly pardoned and cleansed a believer of all sin and guilt before God, the act of baptism publicly and visibly transitioned that believer out of a life characterized by sinfulness. This is why Paul was able to say in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” Though the believers in Corinth had once lived lives characterized by sinfulness, they had been washed by baptism: set apart and declared righteous. That Paul most likely had the moment of water baptism in mind as that mark of repentance from a sinful life is suggested by his mention of the triune Persons: “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ [the Son] and in the Spirit [the Holy Spirit] of our God [the Father]” (1 Cor. 6:11; compare Matt. 28:19). Though a believer is spiritually and invisibly forgiven of their sin and guilt and justified before God by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:8–9), this spiritual reality is manifested before all through the act of water baptism, by which the regenerated believer visibly washes away his or her former lifestyle of sin by this solemn act of repentance

This rescue (or salvation) from a destructive sinful lifestyle is also in Peter’s mind when he says that “baptism . . . now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21). Some have taken this to mean that the act of water baptism itself somehow applies saving grace to the individual, so without baptism a person cannot be eternally saved. However, when we understand Peter’s imagery and typology in this passage, such a view doesn’t hold water. Peter said that baptism corresponds typologically with the water of the flood. Note the analogy Peter draws: Noah constructed the ark, “in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that [water], baptism now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:20–21). So, in a way similar to the salvation achieved for Noah and his family through the waters of the flood, the waters of baptism now “save” believers in Christ. How did the waters of the flood save Noah? Peter’s second epistle tells us that the utterly sinful world, which stood under the just condemnation of God, was “destroyed, being flooded with water” (2 Pet. 3:6). Noah and his family were then deposited in a “new” world, washed clean of sinfulness. Similarly, the believer enters the water as a citizen of an old world—their world of sinfulness, darkness, and destruction. They then come out of the water as citizens of the new world—a world of righteousness, light, and life. The waters of baptism, according to Peter’s imagery, “save” a person from a lifestyle of sin, because baptism marks the moment of that person’s official, solemn abandonment and release from the sin that once characterized his or her life: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Yet baptism as repentance from a life of sin is only one end of the compass. It represents the orientation and trajectory of the person prior to entering into the water. Nobody remains buried in the waters that wash them clean of a lifestyle of sin. As the believer died to the former direction of the “sinner,” he or she rises again facing a new direction: the life of a saint. This leads us to the opposite end of the compass to which the believer turns through baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life.

4. Baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life (1 Pet. 3:21)

Turning from a life of sin automatically involves turning to a life of righteousness, as does turning to a life of righteousness means forsaking a life of sin. Thus, as I have been saying, the third and fourth facets of baptism are inseparably linked. Paul wrote with the same dip of his pen, “You were washed . . . you were sanctified” (1 Cor. 6:11). Washing indicates the eradication of the dirtiness of a person’s immoral life. Sanctification means the setting apart unto a clean life.

From the beginning of the New Testament church, then, baptism involved not only the outward sign of one’s decision to abandon a life of sin, but also—in the same held breath—the commitment, pledge, or vow to live the Christian life by the power of the Spirit. It’s the pledge to live out “deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:20). Just as believers turned away from their trespasses and sins in which they “formerly lived” (Eph. 2:1–2), they committed to walk in “good works” (Eph. 2:10). Implied in the act of baptism as a solemn mark of repentance is the idea that the one being baptized was committing to live as a disciple, dedicated to observe all that Christ commanded (Matt. 28:20).

For explicit language related to baptism as a “pledge” or “oath,” however, we turn again to 1 Peter 3:21. After saying that “baptism . . . now saves you,” he clarified the precise nature and power of the rite he had in mind: “not a cleansing of dirt from the flesh”—that is, this wasn’t a bath to scrub the body—“but a pledge to God from a good conscience” (my translation). The second part of this statement has been variously translated as “an appeal to God for a good conscience” (NASB), “the answer of a good conscience toward God” (NKJV), and “the pledge of a good conscience to God” (NET). The Greek text itself is not clear whether baptism is meant to be the act that appeals to God for a clean conscience, or that baptism is a response to God with a commitment to holiness because of the conscience that has already been cleansed. It seems to me that the second option best fits the context and the overall teaching of the New Testament. Thus, the emphasis is on baptism itself as a visible pledge of the believer to God before many witnesses to forsake the lifestyle of sinfulness and begin a new way of life—like a wedding ceremony is a pledge of fidelity to one’s new spouse and faithfulness to the married life.

In this view, the language of 1 Peter 3:21 is best understood as indicating a personal “oath,” “vow,” “pledge,” or “promise,” in which the recipient of baptism thereby swears to live the Christian life by the help of the Spirit. In one of the earliest descriptions of how Christians baptized new believers, Justin Martyr said that baptism was administered to those who “are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly” (1 Apology 61). By submitting to water baptism, the new Christian was publically confessing his or her faith and promising to walk “by the Spirit,” the lifestyle associated with “the way of life,” that is, the sanctified life of discipleship to Jesus Christ.

Let me make one final clarifying note regarding baptism in order to clarify a common misunderstanding. Although the idea of “baptismal regeneration” is widespread among the early church fathers, it should not be confused with the notion of “baptismal salvation” in the sense of the water itself affecting a person’s eternal position before God. In the early church, the term “regeneration” or the “new birth” originally referred to a practical change in lifestyle—the very act of repentance from a life of sin to a life of righteousness we’ve discussed in this essay. The candidates for baptism had resolved to live new lives, abandoning their lives of unbelief, idolatry, and sin. The early Jewish Christian communities regarded baptism as the conscious decision to abandon the “path of death” characterized by sin and to begin a journey on the “path of life” characterized by righteousness (see Didache 1–6). Even in the New Testament baptism is metaphorically associated with being “made alive” (Col. 2:12–13) and setting a believer on the path of “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).

Given this background of instruction that contrasted death and life, the language of “regeneration” in the earliest church fathers likely derived from the notion that baptism was the point of one’s conversion from the lifestyle characterized by death to a lifestyle characterized by life. Similarly, the early church also referred to baptism as “illumination” or “enlightenment,” as baptism marked the new believer’s change of course from the “path of darkness” to the “path of light” (compare Epistle of Barnabas 18.1).

How, then, did the idea develop that says the water of baptism saves a person from eternal damnation, not merely from a sinful lifestyle? While the earliest church used the metaphors of regeneration and illumination to refer to the practical change of lifestyle, later Christians began to interpret these metaphorical terms more literally and metaphysically, resulting in the notion that the water itself supernaturally mediated saving (life-giving) grace to the recipient. From that point on until the Reformation, the idea that water baptism was a gracious means of salvation rather than a gracious means of initial sanctification became common. However, it seems most proper to regard baptism as intended to be the first means of sanctifying grace, the moment when a new believer commits to live the Christian life by God’s grace, to walk in newness of life.

To sum up: besides confession of faith in the triune God and personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection, baptism is an act of repentance from a life of sin and a pledge to live a sanctified life. Yes, those who understand baptism as a confession of faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as well as a profession of trust in person and work of Christ have genuinely waded in the refreshing waters of this sacred rite like lambs lapping in a cool stream. However, with a greater understanding of its mysteries, those who have repented from sin and pledged a life of holiness through water baptism will find themselves going deeper than the little lambs, entering a sacred river where the elephant floats at large.

(NOTE: This series is continued in Part 3 of 3: “Dealing with the Elephants”)