What is Baptism?

Billy Sunday, revivalist preacher

Later nineteenth-century revivalists stressed the primary importance of public acts: the sinner must repent and witness to their conversion in some public way, such as “walking the aisle” or “coming forward to the altar.” An interesting byproduct of this was that baptism came to be viewed as a means to witness to one’s conversion, especially to nonbelievers. There is little if any biblical warrant for this, but many have come to see witness as the fundamental meaning of baptism.

Gordon T. Smith, Beginning Well, 97

And that is exactly right. The Bible speaks of baptism in many ways (here’s my meditation on one of them) but never as a public witness of one’s faith. I often wondered where that came from and after reading Smith, I felt like I should have slapped my forehead and said, “Yeah. Of course!”

Smith’s book is very good. It is provoking in some ways but it challenges some old assumptions too. I’m reading it slowly and carefully, more carefully than I do other assigned readings. Part of my problem is that I am also reading Victor Hamilton’s Handbook on the Pentateuch at the same time. It likewise is excellent and is causing me to read slowly and reflectively. I am struggling to keep up with my reading but for good reason. It is very good!

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  • The public witness aspect has always confused me as well. After all or Lord Jesus Christ had not professed any faith prior to his baptism. In fact Jesus had done absolutely nothing prior to his baptism… he didn’t attend church regularly, he didn’t take a vow, he didn’t act “normal” so as to fit in with the group first. He simply came and was baptized.

    I suppose most of teh arguments I hear are about the Ethiopian in Acts. He was first instructed then professed then baptized (at least that is the logic of the credos). Or the story of Acts 16 (I think) of the jailor professing first then baptism. These are used as reasons to defend baptism as a marker of profession. Of course, I don’t really have a problem of using baptism for this purpose for adult converts. However, we cannot ignore the other reasons for baptism: washing away of sins, cleansing of our souls, new birth (regeneration) in Christ, incorporation into the community of faith, and the transformation by the Holy Spirit.

    I have a recent blog post on the sacraments at my blog. http://www.hoosierpastor.blogspot.com.

    PS: Tim, you should help me improve my blog. I don’t know what I am doing and could use a few pointers.

  • Tim, do you see baptism as sacrament or ordinance?
    I ask because I looked at the web site of your current church and I see that they have a very “baptist” view of baptism and communion.

  • Chris, I am a credobaptist so I do believe that a credible profession of faith is a necessary precondition to baptism. What I’m considering is what baptism is. The memoralist view is that it is a public profession of your faith. I don’t see that in the Bible anywhere. As you pointed out, the Bible says many things about baptism that are much stronger than “public profession”. I found it fascinating that Smith linked that view to revivalism. I hadn’t made that connection myself but it makes sense to me.

    I don’t care for the term “ordinance” because it sounds too much like “duty”. I prefer the term “sacrament” because I believe that baptism is a means of God’s grace, not an empty symbol.

    I am part of the Evangelical Free Church and they use the term “ordinance” in their statement of faith. They are by and large baptistic. But there is a lot of leeway in the EFCA so you can hold to anything from a strict memoralist view to something along my lines and still be part of the EFCA.

  • Is Robert Webber EFCA?

  • Not that I know. He might be. I’m not sure.

  • I like the word “ordinance” in that it subsumes sacraments along with other means of grace, like the preaching of the word. The Shorter Catechism talks about the means whereby Christ communicates the benefits of redemption to us as His “ordinances,” which it further elucidates as “the word, sacraments and prayer.”

    Peace ….

  • That’s fascinating Carteé, I wouldn’t have thought you would go for “ordinance”.

  • only because I’ve tried to think of synonyms without success: commands; rituals; community practices (too emergent). Couldn’t really think of a word I liked better that captured those things our Savior taught us to do.

    Or it could be just because I’m fascinating … :) (I crack myself up)

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