We are spending three weeks at Providence City thinking about baptism. Here are some resources to help you think about this beautiful yet sometimes controversial practice that God has given us.
What is Baptism?
The word “baptism” in our English translations of the New Testament isn’t really a translation at all, it’s a loan-word from the Ancient Greek βαπτισμα or “baptism”. In Ancient Greek baptism wasn’t a Christian word, or even a religious word, its basic meaning was to dip, dunk, or plunge. As for example when Jesus “dips” a piece of bread in a dish in John 13:26. In different contexts “baptism” could mean washing dishes (Mark 7:1–5), or dying cloth (Rev 19:13), or ceremonial washings of things or people (Heb 9:10). From the literal meaning of being plunged or immersed in something, it also had a figurative meaning of being completely overwhelmed (Mark 10:35–45; Luke 12:49–53).
Why does this matter?
When we read the word “baptism” in the New Testament we naturally associate this with the practice of Christian water baptism. But we need to be careful because there are a number of different “baptisms”: the “dunking” of repentance performed by John the Baptist (aka Jack the Dipper) and his disciples; the immersion of the Spirit and fire by Jesus; the ceremonial washings of the Pharisees; and being plunged into Christ (i.e union with Christ). Particularly in the epistles, we ought not to assume that Christian water baptism is on view when the word baptism is used with no mention of water. To break that automatic association, it can be helpful to mentally replace the word “baptism” in those passages with dunk or plunge and ask yourself — what does that mean here?
Three approaches to
Christian water baptism
Credo-baptism means “believers baptism”. It refers to a position in which baptism is only administered to those who have come to a personal profession of faith. It is sometimes called “adult baptism” as the position excludes the baptism of children because they are unable to express a personal faith, although all three approaches agree that adult converts to Jesus should be baptised.
Covenantal-baptism refers to a practice which includes the baptism of the children of Christian households on the basis that they are included in the covenant of God. This position is sometimes referred to as “infant baptism”.
Dual-practice baptism refers to churches that provide for both the credo-baptist and covenantal-baptist positions to happily co-exist. All Christian parents are encouraged to disciple their children and raise them in the knowledge of the Lord. They are free to either baptise them as infants or wait until they are able to profess faith for themselves, according to their family’s convictions. We have never had a formal policy on baptism, and Providence City is planning to adopt the dual-practice position.
For some interesting insights into why we argue over baptism, see Troubled Waters: A Fresh Look At Baptism And Why We Argue by Jordan S. Pickering.
“Baptism is an issue that has long divided the Christian church, and in spite of 400 years of discussion, it is an argument that has not made much progress. … Yet when arguing the details, each camp discusses the same biblical data, but without seemingly being able to hear each other. … Using biblical evidence that is not usually associated with baptism, this book examines those foundations, showing how correcting our foundations and challenging our assumptions can suggest a fresh solution to the problem of baptism.” – amazon.com
Baptism in the New Testament
For an excellent scholarly case for credo-baptism read G. R. Beasley Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament.
Baptism: Three Views
For a good description of the covenantal baptist position see the relevant chapter by Sinclair Ferguson in Baptism: Three Views, edited by David F. Wright
Evangelical Theology, Second Edition
For a defence of the dual-practice position see Section 8.6 in Mike Bird’s Evangelical Theology
Watch this video for an account of how a trusted theologian changed his mind on the issue.
A good sermon series
Here are three audio lectures by John Newby on baptism in general. He makes compelling arguments for both infant and covenantal baptism in particular.
For a vigorous discussion with people holding to a variety of views on baptism, listen to this episode of Mere Fidelity.
For your edification and to guide our thinking, here is a pdf compilation of all the occurrences of “baptism” words in the New Testament. Reading every reference to baptism in the NT will give you a wonderful big-picture grasp of how the word is used, and will put you in a powerful position to grapple with the teaching series.