We had the joy of baptising an Iranian man into church membership on Sunday. What a privilege it is to be involved in God’s work and, privilege of privileges, to actually get to see the fruit of it. But, whenever we have a baptism, it is a good opportunity to revisit exactly what we are doing and why. So, in no particular order, here are some things.
Making visible what is invisible
Our brother was a Christian before he was baptised. His baptism did not bring him into the kingdom nor did it bring him into the covenant. The Holy Spirit had already made him regenerate before his baptism and he believed in Christ and had received the forgiveness of sin prior to getting in the water. Baptism, in essence, was making visible what already existed but was invisible. Perhaps most significantly, my friend belonged to the church – in the invisible, universal sense – prior to his baptism but he didn’t yet belong to the visible, local church. In getting baptised, he was making visible what was currently invisible. His faith, his cleansing from sin and – most significantly – his being added to the church were all visibly expressed in baptism.
Symbolising what has been spiritually received
Our brother has been washed clean from sin by Christ, so we symbolise this with the washing of water. Our brother has died to sin with Christ, so we symbolise this by the going down into the water. Our brother has raised up to new life in Christ, so we symbolise this in coming out of the water. None of these things apply these realities to the baptismal candidate, but they symbolise what has already been spiritually receive by him.
One of the reasons Baptists believe baptism follows conversion, and why they argue it is an act of faith, is because it is a matter of obedience to Jesus. Fundamentally, leaving aside any specific theological case for credobaptism for a moment, we baptise and get baptised because Jesus commands it. Whatever else we might want to say, Jesus says this is the mark of being a disciple. This is the uniform he insists they must wear at the end of Matthew 28. The most basic act of faith, the most basic evidence of genuine belief, is if we do the commands of Christ. Jesus said clearly enough, ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15). James is pretty clear what he think about faith without works (James 2:26). Genuine faith is manifest in obedience to Christ, and Jesus is clear that disciples are to be baptised. Baptism is, therefore, an act of faith. It is an acting on the commands of Christ as a follower of Christ with faith in him.
Baptists believe in regenerate church membership. That is, only those who have entered into the new covenant in Christ’s blood ought to be admitted to his church. Only regenerate persons, who have trusted in Christ, ought to be welcomed into the church and given the covenant signs. Only born-again, regenerate people are to be baptised. Fundamentally, this was Jesus’ Great Commission: to make disciples and then baptise them. This is what the early Church did in Acts 2, they preached the gospel, people responded and then they baptised them and welcomed them into the church. In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus gives the church the authority to affirm who is regenerate and who is not. The keys of the kingdom – the right to say who belongs and who does not – are given by Jesus to his church and they exercise the keys by removing people from the church and removing communion from them.
It is on this point that Baptists stand in the historic traditions of the Church. Both the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox believe in regenerate church membership. They rightly believe baptism brings one into the church, communion is the mark of an ongoing covenant member and those who receive them – that is, those who belong to the church – are necessarily regenerate. They are, of course, wrong about the means of entering the covenant, being as they teach it is through those covenant signs working ex opere operato. But they are right that scripture teaches a regenerate membership of the church and maintain it ought to be so today. This was the practice of the early church, the historic church throughout the ages and is the practice of baptistic churches also.
The church is tasked, then, with affirming genuine belief. When a person is baptised, they are not merely saying ‘here I am, I am a believer’. They certainly are saying that, of course, but it isn’t the only thing going on. The church is also affirming, ‘here they are, they are are believer!’ The individual claims to be regenerate and the church, by exercising the keys of the kingdom through baptism that welcomes them into the church, affirms their profession.