What is Baptism?
Baptism is being immersed in water in the name of the Trinity for repentance and faith in Jesus denoting entry into the Christian Church. But a few points need to be unpacked from this statement:
Who was baptised in Bible times?
- In: the person being baptised can go down into the water (Acts 8:38) and be submerged in it, but many people are baptised by affusion in which water is poured on the candidate instead.
- Trinity: the words “I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) can be used at baptism, but many people are baptised “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 19:5).
- Repentance: this word means “turning back to God”, and was a key part of Jesus’ message (Matthew 4:17); but it was not the whole of it, being also what John the Baptist proclaimed (Matthew 3:2). The Christian Church did not recognise John the Baptist’s baptism as being fully Christian (Acts 19:4), so something else is clearly required as well.
- Faith: the Bible’s word means both “belief” and “trust”. Belief is agreeing to facts, trust is putting one’s personal security in someone’s hands. In the bible baptism is always linked with faith in Jesus. It denotes both assenting to the facts about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and also committing oneself to following him in a personal relationship.
- Denoting entry: in the New Testament it seems baptism was the way people became followers of Jesus, but the question of whether baptism makes you a Christian was not tackled in those days when baptism always accompanied a personal response. See below.
- Christian: Jesus’ disciples (followers) were soon nicknamed “Christians” (Acts 11:26), and this word describes all those who believe in Jesus as God’s Son in the way in which the New Testament part of the bible explains.
- Church: the community of those who follow Jesus. See also Common Questions about Christening
The Acts of the Apostles gives the strong impression that “wherever and whenever the gospel was proclaimed, those who believed were baptised immediately”. Of course, this raises the vexed question of whether infants (those too young to express their belief) were baptised. There are four “household baptism” recorded in the New Testament (Acts 10:48, 16:15, 16:33, 18:8), and some argue that there must have been infants in at least some of these. Others argue that any infants can’t have been baptised since baptism denotes faith which the infants wouldn’t have been able to profess.
The text of Acts doesn’t tell us either way, and there is no definite historical evidence about infant baptism dating before AD 200. We recommend Kevin Roy's book: Baptism, Reconciliation and Unity p37 and p41-63 for a serious examination of this question, and the item "Baptism and Reconciliation" included on this website is a brief summary of what he says.
What does baptism do?
There are, roughly speaking, four views of the effect of someone being baptised:
- Nothing. Christians need not bother with the physical sign of baptism if they experience the spiritual grace. Spirit-baptism is the fulfilment of the ceremony of water-baptism. This view is taken by churches which do not practice sacraments, such as the Quakers (Society of Friends) and Salvation Army.
- An expression of obedience to Jesus, and as such is desirable but not essential: it is a sign which symbolises an underlying reality but has no actual effect. This view is called Zwinglian (after Zwingli 1484-1531) or Baptist (but many Baptist theologians are closer to the Reformed view). One of the main points of baptism on this view is that it is a witness to others of one’s personal decision to follow Christ.
- It is a sign and seal, effecting what it signifies in the context of faith. This is the Reformed or Covenant view, held by the Church of England (in the 39 Articles of Religion in the Book of Common Prayer) and the Presbyterian Westminster Confession. “In the context of faith” means that the New Testament’s language of efficacy (e.g. Romans 6:4, 1 Peter 3:21) is correctly applied to those who trust in Jesus for themselves.
- It does what it says it does, actually making someone a Christian. This is called the “Catholic” or “Ex opere operato” view. (These Latin words mean it works by virtue of having been performed correctly.).
For further examination of these views we recommend Gordon Kuhrt’s book Believing in Baptism p83 -101, and the item "Believing in Baptism" included on this web-site is an introduction to this area of theology.