Timothy George had a perceptive article in First Things on the decline in baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention titled “Troubled Waters” (6-2-14). George suggests that we should ask the question of whether the decline in baptismal statistics is masking another more basic problem, “the downgrading of baptism itself?” I think George is exactly right. Baptism is still practiced in our churches but it is thought to be, as many often refer to it, “just a symbol.” Many pastors spend more time talking about what baptism is not and what it does not do than explaining its meaning and significance.
Baptism is a congregational act of immersing a believer in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which signifies the person’s (and congregation’s) union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism has a vital role in our church community by calling us back to the centrality of the Gospel. In the act of baptism we are reminded that the entirety of redemptive history centers on Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism, rightly understood, is not simply something we do, but it is a declaration of who we are. Baptism displays the triumphant march of the gospel around the globe among people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
As a sign of the kingdom of Christ baptism is a congregational act of spiritual war. The person being baptized is not simply giving an individual testimony but is adding their testimony to the Gospel witness of the congregation. The pastor performs the act of baptism on behalf of the congregation, and the assembled church members are not incidental spectators, but celebratory participants in this Gospel drama as they see and hear Jesus proclaim his Gospel of the Kingdom in the initiatory sign he ordained.
Baptism is a sign of the Kingdom of Christ—not a mascot
Too many of our churches think of baptism in the same way a college sports fan thinks about their favorite team’s mascot. It is an identifier; it brands us in a particular way, but it is not vital. The mascot doesn’t actually participate in the competition, and the team’s success is not dependent upon the mascot in any real way. Nevertheless, we are glad to have one and it provides us with a warm sense of belonging when we see it. Nothing would be lost without it but we are still glad to have it around. Our Baptist forefathers were willing to face martyrdom rather than capitulate on the issue of baptism. Sadly, I fear that their conviction seems bizarre to contemporary Baptists.
Baptism as a sign of the Kingdom of Christ is a defining marker of Christian Gospel identity and the initiatory rite of Christian discipleship. Baptism declares that the believer is already in union with Christ but baptism also points to the not yet promise of bodily resurrection with Christ when He consummates His Kingdom (Rom 6:1-11). Baptism instructs us in the primacy of the gospel for the rest of our lives. It is a part of the disciple-making process, which has a formative role in our continuing sanctification in the body of Christ. The apostles keep referring back to baptism as they interact with churches because, according to them, it is not just something we do, but it clarifies who we are (see Rom, 1 Cor, 2 Cor, Gal, Eph, Col, Heb, 1 Pet).
Baptism is a declaration of the Lordship of Christ—not “just a symbol”
Picture yourself coming over to my house for dinner. Upon arriving you meet a beautiful and charming woman and you ask me, “Who is that delightful woman?” And I respond, “Oh, that is just my wife.” I wonder what conclusions you would draw about my relationship with my wife and about me as a husband. Judi is my wife, but rest assured I would never refer to her as “just my wife.” That kind of language would be demeaning and would communicate a desire to minimize our relationship.
Baptism is not “just a symbol” any more than the gospel is “just a story” or the Bible is “just a book.” Baptism is a divinely given symbol that serves the church as a persistent Gospel classroom. Paul refers to the church in Rome as those who have been baptized. He writes, “all of us” (6:3), “we were,” we too” and (6:4), “if we have been” (6:5). All of the language is corporate. It is congregational. To be united to the head, the Lord Jesus Christ, is to be united to his body, the church (1 Cor 12:13). The profession of faith proclaimed in baptism is never an individual experience; it is the Gospel testimony of the person being baptized added to the Gospel testimony of the local church.
The corporate witness of baptism is a declaration of “the manifold wisdom of God,” even to “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). The resurrected Christ declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18). He then commissioned his apostles and his churches (Eph 2:20) to be on mission in his authority, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20). In other words, when a church faithfully baptizes, the act is a direct expression of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Baptism is the proclamation of Christ to the congregation that every member of the church deserves death and hell but “in Him” they are forgiven and resurrected as new creations.
Baptism is a gracious gift for remembering who we are—not an inconvenience
Many churches today have enormous confidence in power of technology for worship. Professional worship teams, stunning graphics and media presentations deliver high-powered and technologically state-of-the-art worship experiences to congregations. Such techno-dominated environments certainly provide an air of sophistication and professionalism. Little thought seems to be given as to whether our technological saturation is distracting us rather than instructing us. When church leaders think about worship service in terms of a cool, up-to-date, polished product then something as odd and unsophisticated as baptism gets pushed to the margins of congregational worship and life. I have recently heard of churches that perform their baptisms before the worship service as people are arriving and finding their seats. I have also heard of churches that baptize in a separate location with only family members and close friends attending. These approaches treat baptism as an inconvenience.
Baptism is gloriously unsophisticated. It is awkward, messy, and humbling to get into a body of water before a crowd of people and talk about drowning, death, judgment, crucifixion, and resurrection. Of course, the same is true of the ordinance of communion. Talk of eating the flesh of Christ and drinking his blood has always been considered odd and unsophisticated but the ordinances lack of sophistication in the ordinances is not a case against their primacy. It is a case in favor of it. Paul’s opponents in the church at Corinth wanted to be known as wise and sophisticated, but Paul and his followers were content to preach, “Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23), and be known as, “fool’s for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor 4:10). Baptism calls us away from our ecclesial hubris and distractions and back to the bare Gospel as the core reality of who we are.
Pastoral Suggestions for Celebrating Baptism in the Church:
- Do not simply perform baptisms in the church; rather, creatively narrate each baptism in terms of redemptive history and cosmic significance.
- Prepare candidates for baptism in terms of meaning and significance and not simply the mechanics of the event.
- Have those being baptized provide verbal testimony of their faith in Christ in the baptistery.
- Remind the congregation of their participatory responsibility in baptism and creatively consider how their participation could be visually displayed during the baptismal event.
- Communicate the significance of baptism in terms of spiritual warfare and celebrating the triumph of the Gospel.
- Speak a direct and personal word to the person being baptized on behalf of the congregation.
- Do not stockpile baptisms as if baptizing is an inconvenience. Baptize believers as soon as proper baptismal preparation can be done and make such preparation a priority. It would be glorious and transforming for a congregation to baptize all 52 Lords Days in a year.
- Take your time during the baptism and do not rush through as if the other aspects of the worship service are more important.
- Refer to and speak of baptism not simply as a past event, but like the apostles, as a means of clarifying theological truth and our mission.
- Refer back to comments made in baptismal testimonies during sermons and other teaching opportunities.