By Herbert Kiesler, reproduced from chapter “The Ordinances: Baptism, Foot Washing, and Lord’s Supper,” as published in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Review and Herald, 2000).
Baptism is the door to the church, a symbol of renunciation of the old life and the adoption of a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:4). Of key importance to the topic of baptism is the biblical teaching on which it is based. The practical dimensions of the rite must also be considered, as well as the history of baptism through the centuries.
A. The Biblical Teaching on Baptism
The ordinance of baptism is rooted in the teachings of the NT with references found in several passages. This study notes the NT terminology for baptism and analyzes its major witnesses: John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul. Additional attention is paid to baptism in Acts.
The words “baptize” and “baptism” come from the Greek root baptizo, “to immerse.” A related root is baptoa, “to dip in or under,” which occurs in several passages (Luke 16:24; John 13:26; Rev. 19:13), but never appears in reference to baptism. The root baptizo is used more than 60 times to denote the baptism by immersion of persons unto repentance, as in John‘s baptism, or following the resurrection, into Christ. The same root, found in Mark 7:4; Luke 11:38; and Hebrews 9:10, all applied to Jewish ceremonial washing. Five times the word points to the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 11:16), where no physical immersion is meant. In Mark 10:38 and 39 the term is used in a figurative way: to undergo, to suffer.
Not only does the word used support the idea of baptism by immersion, the details of baptismal stories in the NT clearly indicate immersion. For example, Matthew points out that “when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water” (Matt. 3:16), and John baptized at Aenon near Salim, “because there was much water there” (John 3:23). In Acts 8:38, 39, both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and came up from it.
2. Baptism of John
The first NT references to baptism involve John the Baptist (see Mark 1:4, 5; Luke 3:3). According to Matthew 3:1–6, John the Baptist proclaimed a message of repentance in view of the approaching kingdom. As a result of his preaching, people from Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordan region went to him and were baptized, confessing their sins.
John‘s baptism inaugurated the new life of the converted person, assuring the one baptized of forgiveness and cleansing from sin. In other words, John‘s baptism was characterized by a forward look to the coming judgment and redemption by the Messiah, who was to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matt. 3:11).
Some scholars have pointed out similarities between the covenanters of Qumran and John the Baptist. For both, the end was near. Therefore, a drastic change was needed, a moral preparation through repentance and baptism. The community at Qumran never acknowledged the Messiah when He appeared, while John was His herald.
3. Baptism of Jesus
All four Gospels provide an account of the baptism of Jesus by John (Matt. 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21, 22; John 1:31–34). Matthew points out that John was reluctant to baptize Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14). Jesus answered John, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness” (verse 15). Jesus did not receive baptism as a confession of guilt, but He identified Himself with the penitents of Israel who were responsive to the preaching of John (see Desire of Ages, p. 111). Thus He took the steps that we are to take, doing the work that we must do. The baptism of Jesus was important because of His role in carrying out the plan of God in both judgment and redemption. It underscores baptism‘s deep significance for His followers.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention three things that took place after the baptism of Jesus: the heavens were opened, Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:16, 17; cf. Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). All three accounts point out that after the voice from heaven acknowledged Jesus as God‘s Son, the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness, where He was tempted by Satan (Matt. 4:1; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1).
During His passion week the chief priests, scribes, and elders asked Jesus by what authority He worked (Matt. 21:23–27; Mark 11:27–33; Luke 20:1–8). He replied with a counter question: Was John‘s baptism of divine or human origin? Because they would not answer, Jesus refused to respond to their initial question. But Jesus fully endorsed the mission and baptism of John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11; 17:12, 13; Luke 7:24–28).
No NT writer brings the baptism of Jesus into relationship with Christian baptism. The reason for this seems simple: Although He was baptized with others, Jesus‘ baptism was unique, for He was baptized as the Messiah. However, though Jesus‘ baptism was singular, it still is related to our baptism, because the Messiah is the representative of God and man. According to Mark 1:11, a voice from heaven acknowledged Him as God‘s beloved Son. According to Galatians 3:26 all believers are sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
4. The Missionary Commission
All the Synoptic Gospels affirm that after the Resurrection Jesus gave His disciples a worldwide commission to preach and teach. Matthew‘s record of Christ‘s commission to His followers contains a threefold order:
- Go and make disciples of all nations;
- baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and
- teach them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matt. 28:18–20).
Here Christ is portrayed as the exalted Lord, the universal sovereign and Messiah to whom is given all authority. Thus, Matthew concludes his Gospel by emphasizing the kingship of Jesus. It is this King who commands His disciples to go and “make disciples of all nations.” In verse 20 Jesus specifies that disciples are made by instructing believers in regard to His teachings and commands; those who have become disciples are to be baptized. Baptism, then, is the public evidence of discipleship.
The gospel commission is the great charter of the church. Every believer is charged with the responsibility of teaching others the message of the kingdom of God. Believers are to share their faith and in this way to make disciples of all nations. Christians are to transcend national, ethnic, and other boundaries to reach people and win them for Christ and His kingdom.
Acceptance of Christ involves an intelligent act of the will. Instruction in the vital truths of the gospel before making that choice is important. Baptism is an evidence of belief (Mark 16:16), and follows instruction.
After His resurrection the Lord gave His disciples the commission to preach the gospel worldwide (Mark 16:15). In Luke 24:47 the emphasis is on repentance and the forgiveness of sins to be preached to all nations. These two key concepts, repentance and forgiveness of sins, are reminiscent of the message of John the Baptist.
5. Baptism in Acts
From the very first, Christian baptism was associated with repentance. Baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus not only symbolized cleansing from sin, it was also a sign that one no longer had a part in the rejection of the Messiah. It showed that one had become a disciple of Jesus and a member of His people.
In Acts 1:5 reference is made to both water baptism and baptism by the Holy Spirit. The latter became a reality on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4), and its purpose was to empower the disciples to become active participants in the global mission of the church. But baptism by the Holy Spirit did not abrogate the need for water baptism, for when the people had listened to Peter‘s sermon they asked how they should respond. Peter answered, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
During his mission to Samaria Philip preached the good news about the kingdom of God. As a result many were baptized, “both men and women” (8:12). It is noteworthy that “when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (verses 14–16). The apostles did not confer the Holy Spirit upon the newly baptized believers, they simply asked the Lord to bestow the Spirit upon them as evidence of their acceptance by God.
As an effect of his vision encounter with the Lord on the Damascus road Paul was blinded. His sight was subsequently restored by Ananias through the laying on of hands. He was then filled with the Holy Spirit and later baptized (Acts 9:3, 4, 8, 17, 18). Ananias‘ instruction to Paul on this occasion was given with the words
“Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”(Acts 22:16)
The baptisms of Cornelius and the Philippian jailer are of special interest because they were accompanied by divine intervention. Cornelius was the first Gentile to be baptized. In a vision Peter had been shown not to discriminate against the Gentiles. He was told, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common” (10:15). While Peter was preaching to Cornelius, the Holy Spirit fell on his Gentile listeners. In the light of this divine manifestation Peter did not hesitate to proceed with the baptism of Cornelius, along with some of his relatives and friends (verses 44–48).
While Paul and Silas were praising the Lord during their imprisonment in Philippi a great earthquake occurred. The potential loss of prisoners so endangered the jailer that he was about to kill himself (16:25–34). Paul stopped him from doing this. In answer to the jailer‘s question “What must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas told him that if he believed on the Lord Jesus he and his household would be saved (verse 31). The apostles then preached the word of the Lord to him and all who were in his house. As a result they were baptized (verse 33). Earlier in the same chapter the baptism of Lydia is also recorded (verses 14, 15).
These incidents of baptism referred to in Acts clearly present baptism as evidence that the believer accepts salvation through the redemptive act of Jesus. Baptism was also a public act during which the name of Jesus was confessed (8:12; 10:48; 16:30–33; 22:16), being preceded by preaching or study of the Word (8:12, 35; 16:32).
6. Baptism in the Pauline Writings
Paul‘s most extensive exposition of baptism is found in Romans 6:1–11, which must be seen in its broader context. In chapter 5 the apostle has shown that Jesus is the only solution to the sin problem — for “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (verse 20). In chapter 6 he points out that his readers have died to sin. He continues, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (verses 3, 4).
In verse 3 the apostle makes the point that the believer‘s relationship with Christ through baptism includes a relationship to His death. In verse 2 Paul indicates that a person who has accepted Jesus as his Lord and Saviour has died to sin. From this we can infer that the Christian, united with Christ in baptism, has finished with sin and lives now in the newness of life dedicated to God (verse 4).
Jesus made it plain that anyone who wishes to enter the kingdom of God needs spiritual regeneration, the result of the renewing of the heart by the Spirit of God and water baptism (John 3:5).
In the same way Paul affirms that a candidate for the kingdom of glory must become a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). As the result of a transformation of the entire being, this process involves death and burial of the carnal nature and resurrection to a new life in Christ in baptism (Col. 2:11, 12).
We hardly do justice to Paul‘s meaning in Romans 6:1–4, or to the chapter as a whole, unless we recognize the different senses in which Christians die to sin and are raised to new life. Since Christ died for all on the cross, Christians are buried with Him by baptism, giving up their wills and dying, as it were, with Him on that day, to allow Him to live His life through them, as the same apostle declares in Galatians 2:20 and 6:14. Christians die to sin and are raised up in their baptism; in this way they demonstrate their acceptance of God‘s offer of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Through Him, Christians receive the ability to die daily to sin and to rise to newness of life through obedience to God. Finally, they die to sin when they die physically; they will be raised in the resurrection of life at their Lord‘s return.
Some have taken the punctiliar aorist verb “we died” in Romans 6:2 to mean that Christians are seen as having died with Christ in His death. However, Paul‘s intended meaning is best expressed as a reference to what happened to the Roman Christians —as indeed to all believers— at their baptism: death to sin.
According to Paul, by being baptized “into Christ Jesus” Christian believers are baptized into His death and raised to share in His risen life, to “walk in newness of life” (6:3, 4). By baptism they “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14; cf. Gal. 3:27). Christians may thus experience fullness of life (Col. 2:9, 10).
Paul understands baptism as an initiation into life in Christ, but also as an initiation into the corporate body of Christ, the church (cf. 1 Cor. 6:11; 12:13). Baptism does not stand for its own sake; it is always the door to the church. To belong to the church —the body of Christ— means that by their baptism Christians take on the responsibilities of the body. Membership in that body involves “forbearing one another in love,” being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2, 3), and doing away with barriers among fellow church members (Gal. 3:27–29). It also means employing the spiritual gifts conferred by the Spirit to build up the body so that it may reach “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–13). Finally, becoming a member of the body commits Christians to the missionary task of the church (Matt. 28:18–20).
B. Practical Dimensions of Baptism
Several practical dimensions of baptism deserve consideration. Baptism opens the door to church membership. Further, the mode in which baptism is conducted and the age at which it is administered need consideration. Finally, the matter of rebaptism must be taken into account.
1. Entrance Into the Church by Baptism
By baptism Christians join the “one body” and become members of the community of faith (Acts 2:41, 42, 47; 1 Cor. 12:13). This is not membership in a club, which can be dropped at one‘s convenience, but membership in the body of Christ. Baptism thus involves repentance, faith, and surrender to the Lordship of Christ.
2. Mode of Baptism
The Bible teaches baptism by immersion. As noted before, the word “baptism” itself indicates immersion. New Testament examples, likewise, show baptism to be by immersion. Finally, Paul‘s reference to burial and resurrection in Romans 6:3–5 would be pointless unless total immersion was intended. Baptism by sprinkling or pouring does not conform to the biblical pattern or meaning of baptism by immersion.
When administering baptism, Christians commonly use the formula found in Matthew 28:19: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” To baptize in the name may mean into the family of, or upon the basis of authority delegated by, the triune God. In apostolic times the formula “in the name of Jesus Christ” or “in the name of the Lord Jesus” was used (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48). Baptism in the name of Jesus only, rather than according to the formula of Matthew 28:19, may reflect Peter‘s exhortation to accept Jesus Christ as the Christ-Messiah, to confess Him publicly, and join His church.
3. Age of Baptism
Those who defend the practice of infant baptism appeal to the so-called oikos or “household formula.” In their opinion this supports the view that children and/or infants were baptized in NT times. The following texts that speak of the conversion and baptism of a household are usually cited: (1) “I did baptize also the household of Stephanas” (1 Cor. 1:16); (2) Lydia “was baptized, with her household” (Acts 16:15); (3) the keeper of the prison at Philippi “was baptized … with all his family” (verse 33); (4) “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with all his household” (Acts 18:8); (5) “You will be saved, you and all your household” (11:14).
Some scholars maintain that Paul and Luke would not have mentioned the baptism of “households” if children had been excluded. However, on closer examination the arguments in favor of infant baptism grounded on these texts are based on silence. Such households would more likely have been their servants and possibly older children. A biblical basis for the practice of infant baptism is lacking. Of course, children of all ages were present in the early church. The church took a special interest in them because Jesus had considered them to be especially precious in God‘s sight (Matt. 18:3; 19:14). But no baptism of children is ever mentioned in the NT. Infant baptism, however, began only in postapostolic times, and no concrete evidence for this practice appears before the end of the second century.
In the light of Acts the preaching or the study of the Word and the candidate‘s confession and affirmation of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ preceded baptism (Acts 8:12, 13, 35–38; 16:30–33). All of this confirms the point that the baptismal candidate could not have been an infant. New Testament references to initiation assume that the recipients of baptism were adults, and that the dispositions required of them were conscious and deliberate renunciation of sin and idols, personal faith in Christ and allegiance to Him.
As noted earlier, baptism brings a person into membership in the Christian church, to share the common privileges and responsibilities of the community. Whether baptism, which is the entrance ceremony to church fellowship, may or should be repeated is a often-asked question.
The only Bible passage dealing with rebaptism is Acts 19:1–7, where about 12 Ephesian disciples are rebaptized. The text itself poses no difficulty. The situation described is that of people who had once been baptized. In response to Paul‘s question “Into what then were you baptized?” they answered, “Into John‘s baptism” (verse 3). According to verse 5, the 12 were then baptized again. Apparently Paul did not consider their former baptism as valid or adequate.
The Ephesians are introduced as “disciples” who had not been baptized in the name of Jesus and were not aware of the Holy Spirit. John‘s baptism was based on an appeal for repentance and forgiveness (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). Christ‘s was different. The reason for their rebaptism, therefore, seems evident. They had received only John‘s “baptism of repentance.”
Apparently Apollos had known only the baptism of John (Acts 18:25), but there is no mention of his rebaptism. Some of the apostles also must have received John‘s baptism (John 1:35–40), but there is nothing to indicate they were ever rebaptized. Thus one may conclude that some of the disciples and Apollos, although baptized with the baptism of John, were in possession of two important elements: their belief in Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Because these two elements were lacking in the baptism of the Ephesians, Paul considered their baptism invalid and rebaptized them. Evidently Paul held that rebaptism was in order because subsequent to their baptism they had received vital new truths. The reception of additional, basic truths warrants rebaptism.
Another reason for rebaptism may be apostasy. One who has openly violated God‘s laws and been disfellowshipped from the church must enter the body anew. On accepting Christ again that person will wish to signify renewed fellowship with Christ and the church by rebaptism. “When one has been baptized into Christ, rebaptism is called for only if there has been a definite apostasy from the beliefs and standards that fellowship with Christ requires” (Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 373). On the other hand, rebaptism may be abused, as in the case of one who repeatedly apostatizes and requests rebaptism. On the topic of rebaptism for apostasy, the Scriptures are silent; therefore, caution must be exercised.
5. The Impact of Baptism on Christian Experience
A theoretical discussion of baptism is of little significance without consideration of its impact upon one‘s life. Baptism in itself does not guarantee newness of life. There is no sacramental power in the water as such. Baptism is, however, symbolic of cleansing from sin and moral defilement.
Once enlightened by the Holy Spirit, a person realizes his or her lost condition. Through repentance and confession one can be freed from the burden of sin and guilt and find full acceptance with God and freedom to live a new life in the Spirit. This new life is the result of a rebirth or regeneration. The apostle Paul likens the experience of rebirth or regeneration to the death and burial of the old life and resurrection to a new life. This is symbolized by baptism.
Key passages relating to baptism in the NT reveal that the concepts of confession, repentance, cleansing, death to sin, and rising to newness of life are closely associated with baptism. The rite also involves belief in Jesus, as well as the cleansing of the conscience. The idea of cleansing is dominant. Thus baptism essentially symbolizes cleansing from sin.
The believer is baptized into Christ and into the fellowship of the church. From the NT perspective the body of Christ is made up of individuals who have been baptized into Christ. They are in intimate union with Christ (Gal. 3:27), and at the same time they now enjoy fellowship with other members of the church.
D. Historical Overview
1. Antecedents to Baptism
A historical sketch of baptism should take into consideration antecedents to the Christian rite. For example, in Leviticus 15, ten verses prescribe washing and bathing to purify from uncleanness of different types (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 21, 22, 27). Jewish purification baths, as evidenced in archaeological discoveries from the time of Herod‘s Temple, were common. In the Qumran community, these ablutions seem to have become extremely important, the hallmark of godliness. In mainline Judaism, the baptism of proselytes was part of their admission into the community of faith. None of these washings or baptisms, not even the baptism of John in the Jordan, had the significance of uniting the one baptized with divinity, as does baptism into Christ.
2. Postapostolic Period
During this period several changes occurred in the way baptism was administered and understood.
The Didache, a document (late first or early second century) that permitted pouring water three times on the candidate‘s head, in the name of the Trinity, when there was a shortage of water (Didache 7). Cyprian (c. 200–258) held that sprinkling and pouring were equally efficacious and that baptism did not consist in the submersion of the body but rather the application of “saving water” to the head (Epistle 75. 12). Those who could not be baptized by immersion for health reasons were sprinkled.
Infant baptism appears explicitly for the first time in Tertullian (c. 200) in a passage that opposes what appears to be a relatively new practice (On Baptism 18). A few years later Origen (c. 185-c. 251) claims that infant baptism was a tradition handed down from the apostles (Commentary on Romans 5. 9).
During the early centuries the baptismal rite was enlarged to include elaborate ceremonies. Baptismal services were deferred to certain holy days, especially Easter. This was an obvious departure from the NT practice in which baptism followed conversion. In the ceremonies of the third century, triple immersion was coupled with confession, anointing, and the laying on of hands. A baptismal eucharist followed. The triune formula (Matt. 28:19) was commonly used in baptism.
Influenced by Mithraic and Eleusinian mystery rites, Christians began to adopt the position that baptism imparted bliss to the initiate. For Tertullian (c. 200), water baptism brought forgiveness of sin, deliverance from death, regeneration, and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit (Against Marcion 1. 28).
3. Post-Nicene Church
From about the fourth century onward both infant and adult baptisms were practiced. By the fifth century infant baptism had become the common practice. In spite of the increasing popularity of infant baptism, certain prominent Christian leaders were baptized as adults. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) was first baptized at the age of 34, even though his parents were Christians. Both Chrysostom (d. 407) and Jerome (d. 420) were in their twenties when they were baptized.
However, infant baptism gradually became the norm. When Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390) was asked, “Shall we baptize infants?” he made the following compromising statement: “Certainly if danger presses. For it is better to be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart from this life unsealed and uninitiated” (Oratio 40. 28).
Augustine (d. 430) was the first theologian to formulate a dogmatic theory of baptism, which stemmed from his controversy with the Donatists. He distinguished sharply between sacramentum and res sacramenti, the sacrament and the grace of which the sacrament is a sign. He held that it was possible to obtain the sacramentum (rite) without the res (grace). Augustine held baptism to be indispensable for salvation because people could be saved only within the church, to which baptism was the sole means of entrance. A layperson, even a heretic, might administer valid baptism. He undergirded the mystical efficacy of infant baptism with the docrine of original sin. In fact, he made infant baptism serve to cancel the guilt of original sin. Augustine realized that children themselves had no faith, hence they could receive forgiveness only through the mediation of the church. Conversion of the heart through faith would follow, depending upon the child‘s physical growth and maturity. At the Council of Carthage in A.D. 418 the church endorsed the rite of infant baptism: “If any man says that new-born children need not be baptized … let him be anathemaA.”
4. Middle Ages
The scholastics systematized and elaborated the teachings of Augustine. They clearly distinguished between matter and form. The matter of baptism was water, while its form consisted of the words. Since both form and matter were instituted by God, the church had no right to alter the sacrament. In baptism all sins were forgiven. Children could experience forgiveness from original sin and adults from sins committed.
Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the foremost Catholic theologian, asserted that “baptism may be given not only by immersion, but also by affusion of water, or sprinkling with it.” But he held that it would be safer to baptize by immersion, “because that is the most common custom” (Summa Theologiae 3a. 66. 7).
Aquinas believed that baptism brings everyone into actual contact with the flow of grace emanating from Christ. It confers the “character” of belonging to Christ, to His “body,” the church. This character obtained in baptism enables the believer to receive the other sacraments.
Luther was not entirely successful in correcting the predominant Roman Catholic view of his day on the inseparable connection between the outward means of grace, in this instance baptism, and the inward grace communicated by it. Over against the Anabaptists, he insisted that the effectiveness of the sacrament of baptism depended on its divine institution rather than on the faith of the recipients. Through the divine efficacy of the Word —apart from which the sacrament has no significance— the baptismal rite effected regeneration in children, although for adults this effect depended on the faith of the recipient.
Zwingli differed from Luther in his theological understanding of the sacrament as a sign, a ceremony, or a pledge that did not actually convey something. As a pledge of faith, baptism expressed the covenant relationship between God and His people, in a way similar to circumcision in the OT. Zwingli underlined the corporate significance of baptism by emphasizing it as an act of reception into the church.
Calvin, on the other hand, denied that baptism, of itself, confers grace. As with the other means of grace, God appointed baptism as a means through which He works His grace in the hearts of sinners. He saw baptism as the initiatory sign by which the believer is admitted to the fellowship of Christ. The Lord appointed it as a sign and evidence of our purification from all sin. Calvin was quick to point out, however, that the only purification baptism provides is by means of “the sprinkling of the blood of Christ” (Institutes 4. 15. 2). The mode of baptism, whether performed by immersion or by sprinkling, was inconsequential (ibid. 19). Like Augustine, Calvin had a strong interest in predestination, especially in connection with the baptism of children. With Luther, he believed that the elect were sealed by grace through baptism. To both, baptism signified the beginning of a “new life” in the church. When a child numbered among the elect died without baptism, it suffered no harm in God‘s sight. Calvin was opposed to private baptism and he held that baptism was to be performed by the clergy.
The name “Anabaptists” (meaning “Rebaptizers”) was given to a group of Protestants in the sixteenth century who concerned themselves with the restoration of the apostolic understanding of baptism. They insisted on the biblical teaching of repentance and discipleship as a basis for adult baptism. Thus they opposed the practice of infant baptism, for which they could find no NT justification.
6. Modern Era
During the age of pietism and rationalism there was no significant theological interest in baptism. Schleiermacher considered it the solemn act of reception into the “community of believers.” In his opinion the baptism of children was meaningless unless followed by proper education. Baptism, he maintained, was incomplete unless it led to confirmation.
The question of infant baptism is alive in the contemporary Christian church. In 1943 Karl Barth delivered a serious challenge to infant baptism, calling it a “half-baptism” and pointing out its lack of scriptural basis (Barth 34–54). Erich Dinkler indicated that “there is no scriptural support in the New Testament for infant baptism” and that this question “must be ‘concluded‘ theologically” (Dinkler 636). On the other hand, Oscar Cullman confidently affirmed that infant baptism was practiced in the early church as an admission rite, in place of Jewish circumcision (Cullmann 70). Likewise, Joachim Jeremias, while admitting that there is no clear example of infant baptism in the NT, still insists that the small children of believers were baptized (Jeremias 55).
At present there is a lack of unity on the form of baptism among the Christian communities. In its document entitled Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, the Committee on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches recommends the following parts in a baptismal service:
- preaching on baptism;
- invocation of the Holy Spirit;
- renunciation of evil;
- profession of faith in Christ and the Holy Trinity;
- use of water;
- recognition of the newly baptized members as sons and daughters of God called to be witnesses of the gospel. At the same time the baptism of infants is allowed (Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry 2–7).
7. Adventist Position
In 1861 B.F. Snook defended the practice of adult baptism by immersion against the prevailing practice of infant baptism, based on linguistitc and biblical grounds. He maintained that both the classical and the sacred use of the Greek word could not possibly refer to pouring or sprinkling; it could only mean immersion. From a biblical perspective, Snook demonstrated that baptism is a memorial of the burial and resurrection of Christ (Col. 2:12). It is related to salvation and is to be administered for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). It is also an initiation rite into the church to be preceded by repentance (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:26, 27; Snook).
E.J. Waggoner viewed baptism as a sign of the death and resurrection of Christ. He emphasized the fact that baptism is not a mere form but represents a burial with Jesus into His death, thus signifying putting off the old life, crucifying the old man, and taking on Christ‘s life in whom we rise to walk in newness of life (Waggoner 1891).
Adventists accept baptism as the biblical rite of admission to the church. This baptism, as both the evidence in the Scriptures and the practice of the early church testify, must be by immersion (“On Baptism” 6).
This rite is administered to those who consciously and freely accept Christ as their Saviour and Lord, repent of their sins, and are thoroughly instructed in the beliefs of the church (SDA Church Manual 1990, 41–43). Thus, infants are excluded. Furthermore, Adventists have always rejected any view of baptism as an act which, in and of itself, imparts grace and effects salvation.
While rebaptism is relatively uncommon in the churches it is felt to be appropriate under two circumstances. When one who joins the church has previously been baptized by immersion, rebaptism is still encouraged because it is considered that the person has accepted new biblical truths since that previous baptism. At the person‘s request, the church may accept him or her by “profession of faith” without rebaptism, thus recognizing the validity of the baptism by immersion of other churches. When church “members have fallen away in apostasy and have lived in such a manner that the faith and principles of the church have been publicly violated, they should, in case of reconversion and application for church membership, enter the church as in the beginning, by baptism” (SDA Church Manual 1990, 51). This happens when one who “is truly reconverted” renews his or her “covenant with God” (Evangelism, p. 375).
By baptism we confess our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and testify of our death to sin and of our purpose to walk in newness of life. Thus we acknowledge Christ as Lord and Saviour, become His people, and are received as members by His church. Baptism is a symbol of our union with Christ, the forgiveness of our sins, and our reception of the Holy Spirit. It is by immersion in water and is contingent on an affirmation of faith in Jesus and evidence of repentance of sin. It follows instruction in the Holy Scriptures and acceptance of their teachings. (Matt. 28:19, 20; Acts 2:38; 16:30-33; 22:16; Rom. 6:1-6; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:12, 13.)