What happens when a beloved doctrine is misconstrued to lead to disobedience to Jesus? Baptists are always faced with a dilemma with regard to their doctrine of baptism, at least intellectually. I have had multiple discussions with fellow Baptists who literally see no need to be baptized or to baptize others because baptism is not necessary for salvation. Baptists teach and believe that baptism is an outward sign of an inward change that is not necessary for salvation. This means that someone can believe in Jesus, not be baptized, and still be justified.
The problem with this belief comes when someone trusts Christ in a Baptist church and then refuses to be baptized. This same person wants to serve in the church, faithfully attend church, and even take part in evangelism and missions. However, they do not want to be baptized and they feel justified to feel this way because, after all, baptism is not necessary. The problem with Baptists and baptism isn’t our doctrine of baptism, but our communication of it. Anytime we talk about baptism, we wave the flag with the word UNNECESSARY written across it. We communicate baptism as something that we should do, but we certainly do not have to do. Our doctrine is faithful to Scripture, but our communication can be so far from the biblical witness that it has the potential to damage the faith of those we evangelize. Of course, this is not the case in many Baptist churches, but in my experience, I have seen a communication problem that needs to be corrected with regard to baptism, which I believe will result in greater obedience to Christ and proper desire for baptism.
Jesus commands his disciples, based on his universal authority, to proclaim the gospel in all nations (Matt. 28:18-20). We see Peter do this very thing in Jerusalem a short time after Jesus’ ascension. In Acts 2, Peter begins to make disciples by calling all men and women to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38). This is the first example of obedience to Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19. Jesus commands, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” We see two normative partners to repentance and faith in Jesus. They are baptism and discipleship. It is normative in the New Testament for believers to be baptized and discipled.
Baptism is ordained by the Lord Jesus in this passage to be a symbol that signifies the repentance and faith of a person in Jesus. In most cases, the biblical pattern is this: a disciple made is a disciple baptized. Jesus sees belief and baptism as being normally inseparable. This makes sense, because becoming a disciple of Jesus includes dying to your old self and walking in newness of life with Christ. So, baptism is the symbolic act of conversion that represents this death and resurrection. Baptism is thus a normal component of disciple-making because it outwardly signifies an inward change of heart—death to sin and life to Christ.
It is apparent that the early church saw the direct connection between faith in Christ and baptism as well. In Acts 2:41, Luke writes that after Peter preached his first sermon, “those who received his word were baptized.” Baptism directly followed belief in Jesus, because those who have been redeemed by Jesus have an insatiable desire to obey Jesus and outwardly signify what had just happened to them. Their love for Jesus breeds obedience to him.
The apostle Paul also saw a direct connection between belief and baptism. In writing to the Romans, Paul simply assumed that every Christian had been baptized. He writes, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Paul is essentially assuming here that every Christian he was writing to in Rome had been baptized. The truth is that the New Testament knows nothing of a believer who refuses baptism. So, when we make disciples, we baptize them, because baptism is a normative partner to belief.
This in no way insinuates that baptism is a necessary component or work for salvation. This is why I am using the term “normative.” In the absolute sense, baptism is not necessary for salvation. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. We even see one such example in the New Testament. Jesus indicates in his conversation with one of the criminals being crucified next to him that this man had believed; yet he obviously was not taken down from the cross to be baptized. But Jesus still responded to his belief by saying, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). And in any similar situation, I think we are safe to say that baptism is not necessary. For instance, deathbed confessions and the like do not require baptism, because we are not saved by works, but by grace.
However, I think it is also fair for us to say that if that criminal or any other person in a similar position was aware of the command of Christ to be baptized (or any command for that matter), his heart would desire to obey him. You see, baptism is a matter of the heart. Obedience or disobedience to Christ is the physical response to a spiritual desire, either positive or negative. This is what James meant when he wrote “faith without works is dead” (Jam. 2:17, 26). The hearts of Christians desire to obey Christ, even in our fallen, yet redeemed condition. It is abnormal for a professing Christian to not be baptized. And it is abnormal for a professing Christian to deny the significance of baptism.
So, because of the authority of the Son of God over all things in heaven and on earth, our mission as the local church and as Christians is to make disciples of all nations, with baptism and discipleship normally following suit. As Baptists, I pray we would remain committed to our doctrine of baptism while becoming more biblically accurate and fervent in our communication of it. Baptism is not an absolute necessity, but it is a normative partner. At the end of the day, there is a serious heart issue with a professing believer who refuses baptism. We cannot overstate the seriousness of refusing baptism. Refusing baptism is willful rebellion against Jesus. May we be quick to reprove those who refuse baptism for the good of their souls.
Baptism is a fundamental. It is a fundamental Christian doctrine for the church. It is a fundamental act of obedience to Christ. If we miss it, neglect it, or ignore it, we are missing, neglecting, and ignoring the one who commanded it, the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth. So, with Peter I plea, “Repent and be baptized!” With Jesus I plea, “Become a disciple by faith, and be baptized!” And with Paul I plea, “Believe and be baptized.”
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY. with his wife Erica and their dog, Simba.