The Initiatory Rite of the Church

This past week in our Systematic Theology class the subject was the church. We studied: the nature of the church; the role of the church; the government and unity of the church; the initiatory rite of the church, Baptism; the continuing rite of the church, the Lord’s Supper. Today I would like to answer three questions regarding baptism: What is the meaning of baptism? Who is the subject? What is the mode?

Believer’s baptism is an outward symbol of what has happened inwardly to the believer. For this reason, Romans 6:4 is often referred to during baptism. Buried in the likeness of Christ death and raised with Christ to walk in newness of life. (Rom.6:4) Baptism is an outward expression or testimony of faith and commitment to Christ. Salvation is in no way dependent on baptism, but baptism completes our faith. Like James said, “But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’” (Jam.2:18) The meaning of baptism is a testimony. I believe that Christ death on the cross was my death and Christ resurrection was my resurrection; therefore, the life that I now live I live in Christ.1

Saying believer’s baptism implies the subject in baptism, but this actually comes forth from the meaning. If baptism is a testimony or symbol of faith, then the subject must be a believer. Those who come forth for believer’s baptism have already experienced the new birth, they are born again to walk in newness of life. They come forward at this time to testify what has happened to them before the entire congregation. While some may say that whole households were baptized and use that to come to the conclusion that infants were baptized in Acts. The only persons named were believers. It is of note to say that this does not mean Adult baptism, but believer’s baptism.2

While the mode of baptism is not as important as the subject (the believer) or meaning (a testimony or symbol) the mode is important nonetheless because unless a person is submerged in water then raised up out of the water, the meaning of death and resurrection is not fully expressed. C.H. Dodd said, “Immersion is a sort of burial…emergence a sort of resurrection.”3 During a sprinkling of water ceremony someone could explain the meaning to the congregation, but there is nothing like seeing it with your own eyes.

I believe the meaning of baptism to be a symbol of the death, burial and resurrection of the believer in the likeness of Christ to walk forevermore in newness of life. (Rom.6:4) I believe that the subject must be a believer who has already experienced the new birth and comes forward for baptism as an outward expression of what has already occurred within. There is no incident in scripture where an unbeliever is named in baptism. I believe that full submersion is the best way mode because it best expresses the meaning. Here are a few texts regarding the mode of baptism as full submerging: John the Baptist baptized in Aenon because there was plenty of water (Jn.3:23) Jesus came up out of the water when baptized. (Mk.1:10) The Ethiopian eunuch when baptized by Phillip is said to have come up out of the water. (Acts.8:36-39)4

1 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baler Academic, 2013), 1027-1028.
2 Ibid, 1023.
3 Ibid, 1031.
4 Ibid, 1031.