Baptism and Church Membership (Pt. 1)
Dear Friends and Fellow Missionaries:
It has recently come to my attention that some people are confused about the relationship of baptism and church membership. I want to use the next few articles to address the issue of baptism, the separate issue of church membership, and the relationship between those two. I hope that will clear up the confusion.
So, let’s begin with the issue of baptism.
I think we can gain a biblical understanding of baptism by asking three primary questions: 1) What is baptism?; 2) Who should be baptized?; 3) When should we be baptized?; And, 4) How should we be baptized?
Q: What is baptism?
A: Baptism is an external and physical symbol of an inward and spiritual reality.
Baptism is an open declaration that Jesus has changed us, and therefore we are His disciples. We are confessing that Jesus is Lord, and that we intend to not only believe in Him but obey everything He has commanded us.
- Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matt. 28:18-20
By going down into the baptismal waters, we are telling the entire world:
1. Our sins have been washed away.
- And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. Mark 1:4-5
- When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for [i.e., because of] the forgiveness of your sins.” Acts 2:37-38
- And this [Noah’s ark] is a picture of baptism, that you are now saved by the power of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Baptism is not a removal of dirt from your body; it is an appeal to God from a clean conscience. 1 Pet. 3:21
2. We identify with Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection
- What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Rom. 6:1-4
3. We intend to follow Jesus’ example of life.
- Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. Matt. 3:13-15
Q: Who should be baptized?
A: Everyone who truly trusts in Jesus.
- Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. Acts 2:41
- But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. Acts 8:12-13
- So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. Acts 8:34-38
- Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. Acts 9:17-19
- While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. Acts 10:39-48
- One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us. Acts 16:14-15
- The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family. Acts 16:29-34
- Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized. Acts 18:8
Q: When should they be baptized?
A: As soon as possible after they commit to following Him.
Notice in all of the passages cited in answer to the preceding question, there is no delay. When people truly receive Christ, they want to obey Him immediately. Therefore, we do not baptize infants who are incapable of expressing their commitment to Christ. We do, however, baptize children who are capable of doing so.
Q: How should we be baptized?
A: By immersion in water.
The word “baptize” is a transliteration of the Greek word baptizo, which quite literally means “to immerse.” In literature other than the Bible, the word was used to describe sunken ships. In the Bible, it is sometimes used to refer to things other than water baptism, but always refers to being totally and completely immersed in something. For example, Jesus speaks of His suffering as a baptism (Matt. 20:22), and our salvation is spoken of as being baptized in the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; John 1:33).
So, although other Christians may use sprinkling or pouring, and although we choose to see the method of baptism as a secondary issue, we believe that the Biblical mode of baptism is full immersion in water. What else more beautifully communicates being buried with Christ in His death and being raised to walk in His new life? In support of this view, I note that in every single instance where the method of baptism is described in the Bible, people went “down into the water” or “came up out of the water,” which is hardly necessary for sprinkling or pouring:
- As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. Matt. 3:16
- And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. Acts 8:38
In the next article, I want to address similar questions regarding church membership, and point how these really are two very different things, not to be confused with one another.
With love and devotion,