Thursday, May 22, 2008

What is Biblical Baptism?

Just about every Christian believes in baptism. Just about every Christian believes in “biblical baptism.” The problem comes when we have to define a “biblical baptism.” R.C. Sproul is convinced he practices biblical baptism. I am just as convinced that he does not.

Encapsulation always risks oversimplification. But I see four prominent groupings of opinions on what comprises a biblical baptism.

1) Pedobaptism – baptizing children or infants into the church at a very early age. Generally, they believe that baptism replaced circumcision as the visible sign of our covenant with God. They mostly practice sprinkling or pouring, but do not usually consider the method of baptism to be a big deal. Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians – most of the mainline groups practice this form of baptism.

2) Baptismal Regeneration groups – they believe that baptism is essential for a person’s salvation. Among these groups are the Church of Christ, some Apostolic groups and a branch of Pentecostals. Many of them also practice baptism only in the name of Jesus (non-trinitarian, often called “Jesus-only” for obvious reasons).

3) Baptist-Practice groups – they believe in baptism of believers by immersion, and practice it to varying degrees. Some believe this is the best way, but do not require it as the only way. They say it is a non-essential and do not require baptism for church membership. Generally, these groups do see believers’ baptism as the biblical way, and do not practice pedobaptism, and they usually believe in the practice of immersion. Many “Bible Churches” and other evangelical groups fall into this category, as do most charismatic and Pentecostal groups that do not believe in baptismal regeneration. There is also a small but perhaps growing movement of Baptist churches who are treating believer’s baptism by immersion as an option.

4) Baptist groups – we believe that baptism is an important act of obedience to Christ which symbolizes and publicly testifies to our conversion in Christ. We believe that immersion, which symbolizes the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and testifies that we are “raised to walk a new life in him,” is the only acceptable mode of baptism. We believe that only those who make a clear profession of faith in Jesus Christ should be baptized, so we do not baptize infants. Because we believe this is an important act of obedience to Christ, we require baptism for church membership.

The Problem

I am not writing to argue the pedobaptist or immersion issues. They are settled in my own mind and I have no urgent need to deal with them. Whoever might read this will almost certainly be from a Baptist perspective, so dealing with these issues is moot. The same is true of baptismal regeneration. It is unlikely that any proponents of that doctrine will be reading this. I am also not going to spend a lot of time with the baptistic groups, except as they relate to the issue I will be dealing with. My focus will be on a growing rift between groups that are clearly within the Baptist circle. There is a strong difference of opinion brewing between those who are part of a group loosely called “Baptist Identity” and those who oppose them. For the sake of convenience, I will use the Baptist Identity term or even BI to describe that group. It is not meant as a pejorative, just a descriptive term. If someone would like to suggest another term, I would consider it.

Both groups believe that baptism by immersion of believers is essential. But there are several issues that have become points of contention. This controversy hit the convention when policies that reflected the Baptist Identity position were enacted at the International Mission Board.

The following are the points of contention:

1) Is baptism into the church (local) or into Christ (universal church)? Of course, everyone believes that ultimately, baptism is into Christ, but the BI groups believe that Baptism is strictly a church ordinance. (Their opponents also believe baptism is a church ordinance, but remove the word “strictly.”)

2) Does it matter who does the baptism? This is one of the key issues that came out in the IMB policies. If someone has been baptized in a church that believes you can lose your salvation, they are considered disqualified for missionary service until they have been rebaptized (or scripturally baptized for the first time). They are, therefore, making “man” of baptism on an equal footing with the mode of baptism. It is not enough to be baptized by immersion as a believer. You have to be baptized by immersion as a believer by someone who believes as we do. Others argue that a baptism is biblical as long as it is done by immersion after profession of faith and is understood as symbolic of salvation, not necessary to it.

Dr. Thomas White, in his CTR “White Paper” has identified 6 key issues in valid baptism: subject (believers only), mode (immersion only), meaning (symbolic, not saving or sanctifying), church (connected to a local church), administrator (representative of local church) and formula (traditional formula or at least in the name of Christ).

There seems to be little disagreement among us about subject, mode, meaning and formula. The issues that arise are relative to church (how important is it that baptism be officially connected to a local assembly?) and administrator (how much does the administrator of baptism matter?).


I am going to reflect on these issues in several blogs. Again, I never know how many are reading what I write. But, I will follow this pattern.

Step 1: Definition of issues. I would love for people from both sides (all sides?) of these issues to comment on whether I have adequately represented your viewpoints. As I read blogs, one of the biggest problems I see is the constant tendency to misrepresent the viewpoints of those you argue against. So, before I go charging off writing about something no one believes in or cares about, I would ask proponents of all sides of these issues to correct me if I have misrepresented your viewpoint.

Step 2: Dealing with scriptures. I am working on an analysis of scriptural evidence. I am not an expert in Baptist history like Bart Barber, Malcolm Yarnell or Nathan Finn. I am not going to venture into whether we are descended from the Anabaptists or the English Separatists, or simians. I will leave that to those with more expertise than I. I am just going to look at scriptures about baptism. Ultimately, I think we would all agree that what ultimately matters is biblical truth, not Baptist history.

Step 3: Delineating my ignorance. You will, I hope, tell me how badly I have missed the mark and how I lack insight into the scriptures. I hope you will do it in Christian love and based on scripture. I maintain the power of deletion, and am willing to wield it arbitrarily. But I love a good theological debate. At some point, I intend to answer a critic with “I am rubber and you are glue – whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” I will just wait for the proper time.

It seems clear to me that if we are Baptist, we ought to at least find agreement on what that means, and on what it requires.

One more thing – as people make comments, and if I see the wisdom of those comments, I reserve the right to edit my post to reflect my new understanding and insight. I can’t have myself look stupid on my own blog, can I?

And, if no one reads this, at least I will grow from studying and writing.


Luke said...

I eagerly anticipate your next blog. Just out of curiosity, are you going to use this study as a sermon series or just personal edification?

Dave Miller said...

I am just doing this for my own study. I read so much conflicting information, I just thought I would do a study of my own. I do better study when I am writing it out, so this blog seemed a natural.

David Rogers said...


I pretty much come down where you do on this. I will be looking forward to your presentation of your study of Scripture.

For me, a telling study is to look at every occurence of baptism that is narrated in the NT, and then ask if a duly assembled local church was present. As far as I can tell, there are many instances where the answer is clearly no, and not one that I can find that the answer is clearly yes. Also, ask if there is any passage anywhere that says that the authority to baptize was ever delegated by a local church to a member of that church.

One small corrective, or at least, variant understanding, I would offer, is your use of the term "baptistic." As I understand the term, it refers both to Baptists, and to those who agree with Baptists in matters of doctrine, and even ecclesiology and baptism, but who, for one reason or another, do not choose to use the name "Baptist" to identify themselves.

Dave Miller said...


That is kind of where I am headed. I could not find a single time when a NT baptism is clearly joined to a local church. Ethiopian Eunuch. The 3000 on Pentecost. Those in Samaria. There is not a clear biblical example I have found of baptism being strictly related to a local church.

I think it is fair to require biblical baptism for membership in a church, but not to limit baptism to that done BY a local church.

You are probably right about the "baptistic" comment. However, I don't know another term to use to describe those who practice believer's baptism by immersion but are not "Baptist." If I can think of another term, I will replace it.

David Rogers said...


I would be comfortable with just forgetting about the "baptistic" question, if it were not for the use of that term becoming a bone of contention in the IMB controversy.

If you read this post on my blog, I think you will get a much better idea of why I think this is an important issue.

Dave Miller said...

I enjoyed your post. Frankly, I want to see a link to a greater explanation of your "common loaf" communion practice. I found that intriguing.

I see your point. I am trying to describe people who are baptist in practice, but not baptist in name. I would love to come up with a more accurate term.

David Rogers said...


Your wish is my command...

The Illustration of the Hypothetical "Common Loaf" Denomination

Dave Miller said...

That is a magnificent illustration. Like you, I am a convictional Baptist and I am not ashamed of our beliefs. But I wonder if balance is lost sometimes among some of the more passionate supporters of out Baptist Identity.

Dave Miller said...

David, I changed "Baptistic" to "Baptist PRactice".

Seems to me to say about the same thing, but stays away from any controversial use of the word baptistic.

Brother Paul said...

Dear Dave,

FOR US there is one Faith, one Lord, and one Baptism. I think Paul meant what he said here. We all know from your own article ( which I thought you covered very well) that there are many different kinds of baptisms. Well there is only one scriptural baptism...what is it like?

Let me give you an example of one: It would go like this...Because of your profession of Faith Stephen and your belief that Jesus is the Son of God, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for the remission of sins in Jesus name Amen. Of course Stephen would now have the gift of the Holy Ghost as promised in Acts 2:38.

All ready implied is the fact that Stephen has heard the Word, believed the Word, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God. Of course, the baptism would be for immersion. Baptism added them to the church...they didn't join the church like you join a club.

Obviously, since 3,000 were baptized that day a newly baptized person could turn around and baptise else could so many have been baptized that day.

We could go into many more areas about is not just is essential to salvation. Paul said those who have been baptized into Christ have put on else can you put on Christ...chapter and verse please.

He who eats and digets shall live...He who believes and is baptized shall be saved...same thing.

Sure, we are saved by Grace through doubt! But you can't take man out of the salvation story! Baptism is an act of obedience just as Faith is a Work. We can't remove man from salvation, even though it is a gift of God.

For more information about the early church please read

Blessings to all,

Brother Paul

Dave Miller said...

Brother Paul,

It appears that you believe in what I called above "Baptismal Regeneration" - that baptism is essential to salvation.

I believe that to be contrary to scripture and, in fact, serious heresy - salvation by works, not grace.

But, it is not my intent to address that subject on this blog. You are welcome to read what I write, if you so desire, but I do not intend to argue baptismal regeneration.

I am writing to discuss issues related to a biblical view of baptism and am not planning to address heretical views.

Thank you for coming by.

Paul Burleson said...


I'm late in coming to your work here but am really enjoying your teaching and the follow up discussion. I too am excited about what will come later. Keep it up. Good stuff.