It’s not easy, because when we are caught up in the kind of conversation where one person is trying to persuade another we often stop listening. We say things like, “Yes, yes. I understand. But…” when maybe we haven’t understood at all. That’s why one of the seven habits of highly effective people is to “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”*
So, even though I have been in Baptist churches for twenty-five years that didn’t require Christians from other denominations to be re-baptized when they joined I’ve been trying to understand why this one does. I have been listening, carefully, to those on the other side of this issue. I have tried to put myself in their place, and see it from their point of view. What I’d like to do here is articulate my understanding of their position without saying “but,” without interrupting to interject my own precious opinion. Maybe when I’m finished one of them will tell me if I’ve got it right or wrong.
Here we go…
When Jesus began his public ministry, he did it by being baptized. He came to John at the Jordan, and when John protested Jesus said, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15, NIV). Although none of us was there, we assume that John then baptized Jesus by immersion, by dipping him beneath the surface of the water, since the Greek word baptizo means literally ”to dip,” or “immerse.” In baptism, we follow the example set by Jesus himself; we come to the river in humble obedience to a righteousness greater than our own.
At the end of his public ministry Jesus commissioned his followers to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, NIV). The meaning is clear: baptism is essential to the disciple-making process.
When Peter preached to the crowds on the Day of Pentecost they were “cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins’” (Acts 2:37-38, NIV). So those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. Although that day was unique in many ways, the pattern that was established—repentance followed by baptism—was not. For the remainder of the New Testament, this is how people are “added to the number” of believers. In other words, this is how they join the church.
When Paul talks about baptism he talks about it as a symbolic way of dying and rising with Christ. He writes, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him in baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4, NIV). The only appropriate mode for such a symbol is immersion, where the old self is buried in a watery grave and the new self rises to the new life in Christ.
To summarize: Anyone who wants to join the church of Jesus Christ should be willing to follow the example of Jesus Christ, who was—himself—immersed. In the Great Commission He told his followers to make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, presumably by immersion and only after a profession of faith. Peter told the crowds on the Day of Pentecost that they needed to repent and be baptized—not the other way around—a pattern that is followed in the remainder of the New Testament. Believer’s baptism by immersion is a powerful symbol of dying and rising with Christ, and clearly the mode Paul had in mind in Romans 6:4.
How about it, friends: have I understood?
*from Stephen Covey’s book by the same title