For a while, I thought that all Christians universally acknowledge the importance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. While there are differences in theological convictions (should we baptize infants? What happens to the bread and wine at communion?), I always thought everyone knew they are requirements for the new covenant church.
That was until one of my friends disparaged the Lord’s Supper, taunting us (who partake of it) as people who eat the body of Jesus and drink his blood. To describe it as shocking will be an understatement. I thought this was just an overreaction to a Roman Catholic view of the Supper. However, some weeks after that, the same friend spoke in the same way about baptism, arguing that baptism is not a requirement since the baptism Jesus mentioned in John 3 is spiritual.
Months after, another friend asked me about the topic of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I then knew that there are some “new generation” churches that either ignore or disparage baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
A new generation problem
Many of the new generation churches in Nigeria are reactions to some of the legalist tendencies of the “Orthodox” churches. Like most reactions, these churches tend to go to the extreme. Many of them, in combating legalism, fall into antinomianism: they emphasize grace to the exclusion of obedience, the eternal security of believers to the exclusion of warnings about persistent sin and apostasy; the gifts of the Spirit and “powerful” experiences to the exclusion of the fruit of the Spirit in the life; the finished work of Christ in the new covenant to the exclusion of the ethics of the new covenant.
So while I was surprised at this attitude towards baptism and Lord’s Supper, I was not surprised that it came from where it did.
Perhaps you have heard many people say Christianity is not a religion but a personal spiritual experience with Jesus. The disparaging of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the consequences of such naïve statements. By relegating the faith to nothing more than my personal experience with Jesus in the inner recesses of my heart, things like baptism, Lord’s Supper, creeds, confessions, catechisms, and worship liturgies are seen as unimportant, even baneful. For them, everything is all about spending countless hours speaking in “tongues,” dancing and laughing in the Spirit, and all the other “manifestations” of the Spirit’s “power.”
This obsession with the supernatural and charismatic has led to the downgrade of the normal, the ordinary, and more so, the symbolic. The normal, ordinary, and symbolic are boring to the tech generation; they want the feeling, the excitement, and the display of “power.”
Given all these, it’s important to go back to the Scriptures and establish why baptism and the Lord’s Supper have been important to the historical church, despite differences in their practice and the understanding of their meaning.
The case for baptism
The great commission
Before he went to heaven, Jesus commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations (Mathew 28:19). John already told us that Jesus has many sheep currently outside of the sheepfold and that he will bring them all in (John 10:14-18).
The commissioning of the disciples was directed towards this aim. Having brought them to the sheepfold, Christ commanded them to bring in other sheep. They were to make disciples of all nations – from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Jesus then told them two things they were to do with those new disciples: baptize them and teach them everything I have commanded you. The command to baptize new disciples is a universal one that Jesus gave his disciples.
Notice that this task of baptizing new disciples extends as far as the nations. The task won’t be finished until all the nations have been brought to Christ. Therefore, as long as disciples are still coming to Christ from the nations (beyond the lifetime of the 12), we should baptize them.
Secondly, our duty to baptize goes together with our duty to teach them everything Jesus Christ has commanded. The baptizing of new disciples will last as long as the teaching of everything Jesus Christ commanded lasts. A church that still holds bible study but doesn’t baptize or disparage baptism is inconsistent, not to say disobedient.
Obedient disciples baptizing new disciples
After his sermon, Peter called his audience to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Baptism is the seal of God’s promise – his promise to forgive sins and give the Holy Spirit (verse 38 and 39). That promise is for Jews and Gentiles; therefore, baptism, a seal of that promise, is for Jews and Gentiles – all whom the Lord our God will call. Three thousand people accepted Peter’s message and were baptized.
The believers in Samaria received the good news, and men and women were baptized (Acts 8:9-13). When the Ethiopian Eunuch heard and believed Philip’s message, he asked for baptism, which suggests that Philip emphasized baptism’s importance in his message (Acts 8:36-38). Paul, the persecutor turned convert was baptized (Acts 9:38). After receiving the Holy Spirit, the believers at Cornelius’ house were baptized with water (Acts 10:46-48). The disciples in Ephesus who had only heard about John’s baptism were baptized in the name of Jesus (Acts 19:4-6).
Lydia and her household were baptized (Acts 16:8), just as the Philippians Jailer and his (Acts 16:33). Crispus and his household were baptized (Acts 18:8).
That baptism continued to play great importance in the church is evident throughout the NT. Paul, speaking to the Corinthian church, took the baptism of the church members as a given – were you baptized in the name of Paul (1 Corinthians 1:13)? To think the answer to this question is “no, none of us were baptized” makes no sense. Rather, the answer is “no, we were all baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, not Paul.” So the members of the Corinthian church were baptized in the name of Jesus.
When Paul wrote to the Romans, the baptism of everyone was an assumed fact. “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death (Romans 6:3)?” Our baptism symbolizes the death and resurrection of Jesus and our participation in it (our union with Christ).
Believers experience a spiritual circumcision, unlike the one performed by human hands. This spiritual circumcision involves the putting off of our sinful nature, and it happened when Christ spiritually circumcised us. And our baptism is the symbol and seal of this work of Christ, our participation in his death and resurrection. (Colossians 2:9-12).
All the above show that baptism was an integral aspect of the NT church.
Christ did not send me to baptize
I have heard that many use Paul’s statement that Christ didn’t send him to baptize (1 Corinthians 1:17) to show that baptism was not important. Let’s consider Paul’s own words.
What Paul was dealing with in 1 Corinthians 1 was schism and division in the church. Some identified with Paul, some with Apollos, and others with Peter. Paul attempted to quell this schism by helping them see their underlying unity in Christ.
Christ was the one that was crucified for them, not Paul or Peter or Apollos. Therefore, they should be united in Christ, who is not divided (verse 13). Similarly, they were all baptized in the name of Christ, not of Paul (or Peter or Apollos). Since their baptism is in Christ’s name, why profess allegiance to Paul? Their identity is in Christ, and their covenant responsibilities are to Christ.
None of them were baptized in Paul’s name; Paul did not even baptize many of them, talk less of them being baptized in his name (verses 14 and 15). When Paul was saying he did not baptize them, he wasn’t demeaning the importance of baptism but uplifting the importance of baptism in the name of Christ. Paul was saying, in other words, “I didn’t even baptize you, so you can’t say you were baptized in Paul’s name.” “You were baptized in Christ’s name, so identify with Christ, not me, Peter, or Apollos.”
But the fact that Paul did not baptize them did not mean other people did not. Paul was an evangelist who was always on the move, looking for new places where Christ had not been named (Romans 15:17-20). Paul was not concerned about who did the baptism; what mattered was that the people were baptized in Christ’s name.
So if Paul did not even bother about who did the baptism (focusing on the continuous preaching of the gospel instead), how could they have been baptized in his name?
This passage is an argument for uniting around Christ in whose name we were baptized rather than some favourite preacher. It upholds baptism.
To be born of water and the spirit in John 3 is most likely a reference to Ezekiel 36:25-27 –a passage about regeneration – rather than a direct reference to baptism by water and baptism by the Spirit (as we have it in Luke 3:16).
However, this does not affect the argument for baptism. For one thing, saying John 3 is not about water baptism is not the same thing as saying there is no command to baptize with water or that baptism is unimportant, except we are saying John 3 must be the passage where every bible doctrine comes from. Mathew 28 and others are as much a part of the NT as John 3.
Secondly, though John 3 is about regeneration, we have seen a close connection between regeneration and baptism (Colossians 2:9-12). Our baptism is a symbol, sign, and seal of our regeneration. In fact, it is easy to argue that in Romans 6, Galatians 3, Colossians 2, there is a coalescing of the sign/seal (water baptism) and the thing sealed/signified (spiritual baptism).
Baptism and entrance into the covenant
Baptism is the means of entrance into the new covenant.
After baptism, the three thousand of Acts 2 joined the believers’ fellowship (Acts 2:42-47). Paul assumed that all the members of the Corinthian church were baptized (1 Corinthians 1:11). When we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into his body (Galatians 3:26-29). When we baptize disciples, then we teach them everything the Lord has taught (Mathew 28:19-20).
One of the reasons we have lost sight of baptism’s importance is the low value we place on church membership. If Christianity is not a religion but a personal relationship, why join together with other believers in the local church, which is an expression of his body?
But Christ does not just save us as individuals; when he brings new sheep, he brings them into the sheepfold (John 10:16). Christ saves individuals and brings them into the body (Romans 12:5). God has a field, and he brings in every believer as a servant in that field (1 Corinthians 3:9). He adopts us to sonship as individuals (Ephesians 1:4) and then brings us together as his household (Ephesians 2:19). We are joined together as building materials to constitute the one building, of which Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20-22).
There is nothing like a lone-ranger disciple who is in the garden alone, experiencing a joy that no one else has ever known. Rather, we are members of Christ’s body, in invisible union with every believer and local union with our local church members, who come to the garden together with us, experiencing a joy that generations before us and after us will also enjoy.
The case for local church membership
First, Jesus expected that his disciples would be members of a local church assembly where they will go and settle disputes (Mathew 18:15-18). This local church will have judicial and disciplinary power – treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
We see this in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul expected the church to discipline the one who had sex with his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). A particular church must oversee a professing believer’s actions with the power to discipline such a believer with ex-communication. Again, the local church has judicial and disciplinary power – hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.
Secondly, NT authors expected that those God calls to be elders/bishops/overseers/pastors will have responsibilities towards local churches. Peter wrote, “be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care.” Elders have specific responsibilities towards a specific church – God’s flock that is under your care. Paul told Titus to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5), and he met with the elders of the Ephesian church (Acts 20:13ff).
Thirdly, the elders have responsibilities to the individual members of the church. Like Peter, Paul told the elders to keep watch over the flock and shepherd them (Acts 20:25-31). They were to protect them and feed them.
These elders will be responsible to God for the specific flock over which God places them. “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). Spiritual leaders will give account to God for how they shepherded the flock God gives to them.
Fourthly, believers have specific duties to specific leaders. We are to submit to the authority of specific leaders – the exact ones who must give an account for our souls. Paul also expects us to respect those who labor among us and esteem them highly in love (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). We should also pay double honour to those who labor in preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17).
Finally, believers are to use the gifts God’s spirit gives them in specific local churches (Romans 12:3-8, Ephesians 4:9-12, 1 Corinthians 12:1-31).
All of the above makes no sense apart from the existence of local churches and individual believers’ participation in them.
Why baptism matters
Baptism is both an entrance into the invisible church and the visible church.
If elders are responsible to God towards a certain flock God gives them, they need to know who belongs to that flock and who doesn’t. If the church has to adjudicate between members and discipline them in some cases, they need to know who is a member. And you cannot have a defined flock except you have a defined means of entrance into the fold.
While faith in Christ is the definite way we enter into the invisible church, baptism – as the sign and seal of God’s promises, the death and resurrection of Christ, regeneration, and our participation in those realities – is the externalized way we enter into the visible church.
Therefore, every local church should insist that those who desire to be church members should be baptized (if they are not already) in obedience to Christ.
Of course, this does not mean a church should close its doors to unbelievers. The church doors should be open so that some unbelievers can come in, hear God’s word, repent (1 Corinthians 14:23-25), and be baptized. But the elders of the church are not responsible for unbelievers; they are responsible for the thriving of the souls of those in the fold. And they need to know who belongs to that fold.
Also, since baptism is God’s command, a church that is indifferent about it is not being faithful to Christ and his word. The church should encourage people who attend their services to be baptized (if they are not) and become members of the new covenant.
If the use of individual believers’ gifts is one of the features that make the local church indispensable, then it makes sense when some churches restrict certain activities in the church to those who have received baptism. In fact, no one should be allowed to the Lord’s Supper who is not baptized, since baptism is how we enter into the new covenant and the Lord’s Supper is a new covenant meal.
Baptism and true faith
But is it not possible for someone to have genuine faith and not be baptized? Yes, it’s possible for someone who has not yet been baptized to have genuine faith. However, it is not possible for someone who disregards, devalues, and demeans God’s command to have genuine faith.
But is it not possible for someone to have false faith and be baptized? Yes, it’s possible. The church will always consist of true and false believers (Mathew 7:22-27). Some of these baptized false believers will apostatize (1 John 2:19) and, in that apostasy, show the falsity of their faith.
However, the church’s responsibility is to accept anyone who confesses faith in Christ and shows that faith through baptism. The falsity of their faith does not undermine Christ’s command to baptize as the sign of entrance into the covenant.
We treat every member of the new covenant like a true Christian. Some will reveal their faith to be false and spurious, and they will fall away (Hebrews 6:4-6). Because of the reality of true and false faith, elders should preach passages like Hebrews 6:4-10 and 10:19-31. True believers will hear it and repent; false believers will persist in sin and prove the truth of those passages.
Paul even described the exodus of Israel from Egypt as a baptism (1 Corinthians 10:2) to make the point that mere participation in baptism is not a guarantee of the genuineness of faith (Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness – 10:5).
Therefore, the reality of false faith should not stop a church from baptizing professors of faith. The church should keep encouraging those who want to be part of the new covenant church to be baptized. This does not mean the church baptizes everyone or forces people to get baptized; it does mean that they see baptism as a requirement for church membership (which is different from church attendance – 1 Corinthians 14:23-25). In the end, only God knows his sheep, but we are to admit into the fold all who profess faith whether we know what is in the deep recesses of their hearts or not.
Baptism is not just an expression of faith; it is a symbol, sign, and seal of the death and resurrection of Christ, his promises, the spiritual circumcision he accomplishes, and our participation in them.
As Christ has commanded, we must baptize every new disciple as a sign of their entrance into the invisible and visible church. Church membership must be restricted to those who have entered into the new covenant through baptism (whether in this church or another). And when they have thus entered into the new covenant, they can now partake of the covenant meal – the Lord’s Supper.
We’ll pick up on the Lord’s Supper in the second part of this article. Watch out.