A Better Understanding of Baptism

baptismBobby Jamieson is a clear thinker and compelling writer. He is also a good friend. But it’s not his friendship that impels me to commend his two books. Rather, it is the fact that I think his two books on baptism (Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Membership and Understanding Baptism) succeed in answering the question: If baptism doesn’t save, why does it matter?

In a day when church membership is often taken lightly and popular ecclesiology focuses on activities and attractions more than exegetical essentials, Jamieson’s two books explain why Scripture requires baptism and why churches need to reclaim the value of this ordinance.

In what follows, I want to highlight three arguments from Understanding Baptism addressing three different kinds of people. First, he makes a case for why Christians reticent to be baptized should be baptized. Second, he explains why baptism is necessary for membership. And third, he shows how membership in the local church is the natural result of baptism.

In truth, this blog can’t do justice to all the Scripture Jamieson considers in his two books. Rather, if you find yourself in one of these camps—(1) an unbaptized believer, (2) baptized but not (intending to become) a church member, or (3) a member indifferent towards baptism—my aim is to spur you on towards picking up his book and going to the Bible to see what it says about baptism and the church.

Baptism and the Believer 

Baptism is plainly commanded in a passage like the Great Commission: “Go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them . . .” (Matthew 28:19). Still, in spite of the command, many resist. There are many reasons for this, and thus pastorally we need to give Christians more than just a “do this, because God says”—though that should be sufficient.

Jamieson carries the same tune as he impels Christians to be baptized:

If you claim to believe in Jesus but have not been baptized, this should be enough. Jesus commands baptism, so you go do it. But if you’re still hesitant, I want to spur you to obeying Jesus command to be baptized by highlighting two benefits of baptism.

The first is that confessing faith strengthens faith. Baptism is an open declaration that you belong to Jesus. And if you’re reluctant to openly declare as a follower of Jesus, then baptism is what you most need to do! Faith in Jesus is meant to redefine you: what’s true about your past, present, and future, who your family is, and who has your highest allegiance. Baptism is the way of picturing and proclaiming all of these realities.

If you try to keep your faith private, it will wither and die. Like  our bodies, faith is strengthened by exercise and baptism is an exercise of faith. . . . The Christian life is lived on stage, amidst the company of the church, before the watching world. And baptism is how we step into the spotlight. (19)

In saying this Jamieson doesn’t mean we are to be showy, vanity seekers, but that as witnesses (Acts 1:8) Christians are called to declare the excellencies of his grace (1 Peter 2:9–10). In fact, a true Christian cannot help but speak publicly about Jesus. Which leads to Jamieson’s second point.

The second related benefit is that baptism presents a ready-made opportunity for evangelism. Many family and friends who otherwise wouldn’t come to church would gladly attend a baptism. If your guests don’t know what baptism means, use the gospel to explain it; if they don’t understand the gospel, use baptism to illustrate it. Just as you are plunged under the water and rise up again, so Jesus was plunged into death but emerged from it victorious. And all those who are united to Christ share in his victory, because through his death and resurrection our sins are forgiven and we’re reconciled to God. (20)

For the sake of obedience, self-assurance, and public testimony the believer has at least three compelling reasons to be baptized.

Baptism Is Necessary for Membership

Later, Jamieson addresses the often undervalued relationship between baptism and the church. And he explains why baptism is requisite for membership and how baptism confers membership (i.e., the two are inseparable).

First, after summarizing his book Going Public into seven bite-size arguments for baptism and membership (ch. 4), he concludes,

Many Christians take it for granted that a church should never exclude someone from membership they’re confident is a Christian. And I think that is almost exactly right. But the problem is, baptism fits within the box marked “How a Church Knows Someone Is a Christian.” Baptism isn’t a separate requirement for church membership in addition to credible profession of faith; it is how someone publicly profess his faith.

Therefore, baptism is a necessary but not sufficient factor in how a church is to know who is a Christian in the first place. All the members of a church might be convinced that a certain unbaptized person is a Christian, but Jesus has bound the church’s judgment—and the formal, public affirmation of membership—to baptism. Jesus has given the church no authority to affirm someone’s faith until that faith is publicly professed in baptism. (49–50)

Jamieson’s argument may seem a bit critical, but he is careful to draw a distinction between the order of knowing and the order of being. From Scripture we believe someone comes to be a Christian through God’s gracious work of salvation; Jesus calls this the new birth (John 3:3–8). This is how a man or woman is saved, but this is markedly different from how we know someone has come to faith.

It is important to distinguish God’s work from the church’s work. The church does not have the same knowledge of God and therefore cannot perfectly evaluate the status of the elect.  Instead, we come to know the sincerity of someone’s new birth through the typical signs of faith working itself out in love (Galatians 5:6) and repentance which leads to life-change (Matthew 3:8). In baptism, therefore, the church makes a public announcement about the reality of a person’s conversion based upon the outward signs of saving faith.

This is the point being made in Understanding Baptism, one that is absolutely essential for the purity and witness of the church—not to mention the spiritual vitality of the man or woman seeking baptism. Only those willing to identify themselves publicly in baptism should be brought into membership. However, once someone is willing to “go public,” to borrow Jamieson’s expression, they must continue in public identification through membership and the regular participation in the Lord’s Supper, which brings us to our last consideration.

Baptism Confers Membership

While some extreme cases exist (e.g., on the mission field where no churches exist, or when a new believer is moving to such a place as the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8), the normal pattern for baptism and church membership is that the former (baptism) confers the latter (membership) and that membership is the natural and necessary entailment of baptism.

On this point, Jamieson is again helpful,

Baptism and church membership should be inseparable. No one should be baptized who is not intending to come under Jesus authority by submitting to his church. The affirmation given by a passport goes hand-in-hand with the responsibility and accountability of citizenship. For a new believer, baptism should be the means by which and the moment at which someone joins your church. (67)

In context, Jamieson briefly tackles the prudence of membership classes, waiting periods, etc. (You’ll have to buy the book to see what he says). Then he reiterates,

Under normal circumstances, baptism and church membership should be inseparable. Theologically, baptism confers church membership. So you shouldn’t baptize people without bringing them into the church, and you should confer membership on all whom you baptize. A new believer’s membership should be conditional upon baptism and should take effect at baptism. (68)

Read These Books Before Getting Wet

More biblical proof is needed to sustain the relationship of baptism to local church membership. And fortunately, most of that biblical proof can be found in a rich study of baptism from the Bible. For that you could go study the Scriptures and make your decisions on your own. Or better, you could go to the Scriptures with a few trusted books on the subject.

I can think of few books (well maybe one, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ) better grounded in Scripture to help you think about baptism and the church. Going Public and Understanding Baptism have been immensely helpful to read over the last few weeks as I have worked on a prospective members class for our church. I would highly commend them, especially to those who want to see baptism have a vital and valuable role in the life of your church.

May the Lord help us give baptism the place it deserves in the church, so that Christ would be glorified by the ones baptized and the churches who baptize.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


2 thoughts on “A Better Understanding of Baptism

  1. Pingback: A Better Understanding of Baptism | Via Emmaus | Pastor John Reading List

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