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Understanding the Church – Part 4

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Understanding the Church – Part 4
Posted on November 20, 2020  - By Dr. Scott Shiffer

The ordinances are described as the ceremonies within the church that believers practice. The two ordinances in Protestant Christianity are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In this post, we will discuss the meaning and forms of baptism in practice. 

Catholics use the term ‘sacrament’ to denote that the ceremonies have salvific nature. They teach that there are seven sacraments to be performed by the priests, of which baptism is one. Protestants typically argue that the ceremonies are spiritual in nature, but not salvific.

Forms of baptism

There are two forms of baptismal practice. First, there is baptism by immersion, where the believer is actually placed underwater and then brought back out of the water. In Scripture, water is often seen as a sign of death, and the ocean is to be feared because of its fierce storms. This is especially true in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

In Scripture, water is often seen as a sign of death

Baptism by immersion has a very similar effect in meaning. The believer is placed beneath the water as a symbol representing death of the old life — and brought back out of the water as a symbol of the second birth and new spiritual life. This is the form of baptism found in Scripture and is how the Gospels’ record Jesus’ baptism. As such, it is the preferred method when available. 

The second form of baptism is baptism by sprinkling. The process of sprinkling misses much of the symbolism found in immersion, but it is meant to represent the same process. It is clear from archaeology that immersion was practised in the early church. It is also likely that sprinkling may have originated in areas where people did not have enough water to immerse believers in front of the congregation. Sprinkling is an acceptable form of baptism, but should ideally be considered only when immersion is not an available method.

Who should be baptised?

Today, evangelical groups are still divided on the issue of whether baptism should be reserved for believers alone or be allowed for infants too. Brethren, Baptist and Pentecostal communities believe that baptism is an act reserved for individuals who are old enough to make a conscious decision to follow Christ and who have repented of their sins. 

Presbyterians (following the teachings of Calvin) and some other denominations believe that infants should be baptised as a form of child dedication, where the congregation commits to helping the parents rear the child in the church. The community makes the vow for the child, who they trust will acknowledge the Lord later as he or she matures and taught more about Jesus Christ.

Baptism is an act reserved for individuals who are old enough to make a conscious decision to follow Christ

It is often pointed out that infants were circumcised in the Hebrew Scriptures and that circumcision was an outward sign of God’s covenant. Since baptism is also an outward sign of entrance into God’s covenant, the argument goes that baptism of infants must be acceptable in families where the parents are believers. 

Others argue that, because whole households were baptised in certain New Testament passages, infants would have been included in these baptisms (see Acts 16, 1 Corinthians 1 and Acts 2:39). The problem with this argument is that none of these passages mention infants. Therefore, the support for this doctrine from these passages is primarily based upon silence. 

Roman Catholics, on the other hand, believe that infants should be baptised because baptism is necessary for salvation. By their teachings, baptism brings regeneration and thus, infants who are baptised are saved, according to this view. 

I believe that baptism is an act reserved for individuals who are old enough to make a conscious decision to follow Christ and who have repented of their sins. It is representative of one’s entrance into the kingdom of God. It represents the second birth, and publicly announces to the world that the individual being baptised is willing to live in the church and obey God in how he or she lives. 

Necessity of baptism

Baptism is a necessary act for the church (Matthew 28:19). It does not save, but we are commanded to be baptised by Christ. People can be baptised as soon as they are cognitively aware of their decision to follow Christ. This would apply to people of any age.

Baptism is a necessary act for the church, but it does not save

I think it is wise for people to attend a new believer’s class before receiving baptism. I do not think churches should require a person to be re-baptised if a new member is simply changing churches. But all members of a local church should be baptised.

There are no biblical restrictions for who can baptise either, and the ability to baptise is not limited to professional ministers. 

Daniel Migliore summed up baptism nicely when he wrote, “Baptism is the initiation into the life of Christ. Jesus commands it and He was baptised. Baptism marks dying and rising with Christ, the washing away of sins, it portrays the re-birth, shows incorporation into the church, and is a sign of God’s coming reign.”

Dr. Scott Shiffer

About Dr. Scott Shiffer

Dr. Scott Shiffer has a Ph.D. in Christian Theology from the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute and has been teaching religion classes since 2006. He leads Faith and Culture Now, an organization to help believers think biblically about culture in America. Scott has given numerous presentations, including one at Oxford. He has spoken at church retreats, youth retreats, conferences, and has taught discipleship classes for many years. Scott is married and has four children. He has a heart for helping believers draw closer to God and for aiding them as they are faced with new challenges every day.



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