Our Understanding and Practice of Baptism

BaptismWhat is to be our understanding and practice of baptism today? As I have endeavored to do in recent issues, we need to think separately of form and meaning. There is but one form of water immersion anywhere in Scripture, one person submerging another and raising that other one up out of the water. There are no specific words to be said at such a time. There are no restrictions as to where baptism might be done (in early Michigan, people chopped a hole in the ice for immersions).  There is no restriction as to who might be qualified to perform an immersion. It would seem that the form is completely undebatable, yet for the last ten centuries or so, there have been major differences.

The significance of the action of submerging and raising, as these surveys have shown, has differed with additional revelatory action by God. The immersions of John were a witness of the individual’s repentance for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4). Immersions by disciples of Jesus continued the personal testimony of the one immersed and added John’s identification of Jesus as the promised Messiah. The teaching of water immersion was to declare one’s death to a sinful past and beginning of a new walk. Jesus later added the coming of His own physical death to the figure (Matt. 20:22-23).

After His resurrection, Jesus declared the fulfillment of God using water immersion as predictive of the very special Spirit immersion that would take place “not many days hence” (Acts 1:5). Being immersed by the Holy Spirit historically began at Pentecost. Since Pentecost, every true believer at the moment of faith reception of Jesus as Savior is made dead unto the sinful practices inherited from Adam and alive unto a spiritual newness of life in Christ Jesus. The moment of faith reception of God’s redemption included all that the redeemed had received since the Garden of Eden, but now with the immersion by the Spirit new aspects were added: a judicial placement in the spiritual body of the Savior, the indwelling of the Spirit, and a spiritual oneness with fellow believers. Doctrinal studies tend to treat justification and regeneration separately; teachings concerning Spirit immersion stress that they occur simultaneously.

For practical appreciation of water immersion, each time a new convert is put under water, it is important to remember that the teaching significance is really threefold—past, present, and predictive. When John Doe is immersed, he is portraying his trust in the historical death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ centuries ago. John Doe is also bearing witness to his own current experience of Spirit immersion, that by simple faith in Christ he was declared dead to his sinful past and made spiritually alive in a new, eternal realm: raised unto newness of life. In his symbolic action, John Doe is also proclaiming his confidence in the future bodily resurrection, when this physical body will be raised anew, as that of Jesus was when He was raised from the dead.

What has happened in Spirit immersion is the basis for proper Christian living. After explaining Spirit immersion, using terminology of water immersion (Rom. 6:3-5), the apostle Paul reminds believers of the reality: “our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (6:6). Believers are to reckon themselves to be “dead indeed unto sin but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (6:11). “If the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by His Spirit that dwells in you” (8:11).

To the Colossians, Paul wrote that “you are buried with Him in immersion and risen with Him through faith” (2:12). “You has He made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses’” (2:13). “Mortify therefore your members which are on the earth” (3:5). “You have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him” (3:10). “Walk in the Spirit and fulfill not the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). “Even when we were dead in sins, God has made us alive together with Christ, by whose grace you are saved, and has raised us up together” (Eph. 2:5-6). “Put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:24).

Theologically, Spirit immersion is what makes this church age distinct. This special relationship is a culmination of centuries of teaching in preparation for a people of God and the coming of the Son of God. Now in Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. There is one body and one Spirit immersion (Eph. 4:4-5). Our loyalty to the living God and to His Messiah is expressed in our faithfulness as parts of the supreme spiritual body being formed. Whether in God’s sight, we function as a hand or a foot or a little toe, He has work for us to do which none other can accomplish. No believer is lost in a crowd; each one is especially designed and specially designated for a specific purpose. Each one of us is an important part of God’s eternal plan.
This may or may not be the last of a series endeavoring to clarify scriptural teaching about the form and teaching of immersion during this present dispensation. We noted that the word was used by Jesus as a figure of speech concerning death and resurrection. Two preparatory stages employed the form of water immersion prior to Pentecost, an immersion unto repentance by John and his disciples and an immersion unto Jesus by His disciples. As a practical application, it was pointed out that “sprinkle” would never properly indicate the form used. Two important predictive purposes were note: one that John would clearly identify the Messiah who would immerse with the Holy Spirit and the other that Jesus would be the Lamb of God. The use of immerse as portraying the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is clear. The significance and proper understanding of Holy Spirit immersion is clearly set forth in Scripture but is not so easy for the mind to comprehend. Those who want to review the entire series can look for numbers 1004, 1009, 1014, 1019, 1034, 1039, 1044, 1054, 1059, 1064, and 1069.

Warren VanhetlooWarren Vanhetloo has A.B., B.D., Th.M., Th.D., and D.D. degrees. He served three pastorates in Michigan, taught 20 years at Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN), taught 23 years at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and is listed as adjunct faculty at Calvary. Retired, he lives in Holland, Michigan. At the urging of fellow faculty and former students, he sends an email newsletter called “Cogitations” to those who request it. You may send e-mail to him at cbsvan@sbcglobal.net.
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