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Fall 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 2 · pp. 159–67 

Dry Times for Believer’s Baptism?

David Esau

“Pastor, we’ve been attending this congregation for some time now and want to make it our home. We were baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church we grew up in and would like to transfer our membership.” Most of the time a request by a committed believer to become a member of our congregation is greeted with immediate delight. But when the request comes from a person who was baptized as an infant and wants to join our Mennonite Brethren congregation without undergoing believers baptism, the request unearths a tension that needs to be addressed in a clear and sensitive way. 1

The trend to separate baptism from church membership goes directly counter to New Testament teaching that baptism means entry into the visible body of Christ.

In recent years, the decline in denominationalism and the movement of people from one denomination to another has created an increasing number of challenges for churches which practice believers baptism. 2 More than ever we are asked to respond to believers who were baptized as infants and confirmed as teenagers and want to join our church. “Why do you require rebaptism?” and, “Will I be treated as a second-class citizen if I don’t?” are just some of the questions being asked.

The questions and issues being raised are positive in the sense that they challenge us to think through what we believe and why. Often we {160} have not been as prepared as we should be to guide people through a practical and theological discussion of believers baptism. The purpose of this article is to provide this kind of theological and practical guidance by studying the purpose, meaning, and practice of baptism in the New Testament so that our current practices can be measured and assessed in the light of it.


Before we dive into the rebaptism question, we do well to remember that we will always have those for whom it is important to outline the basic reasons for baptism. In most congregations we have believers who for various reasons have not taken the step of baptism. With the evangelical emphasis on a person’s conversion, baptism has often been postponed, neglected, or considered an optional extra. 3 It is not uncommon to find teenagers, young adults, and even people who have been converted for some time, hesitant to take the step of baptism. In a few denominations (e.g., the Salvation Army and Quakers) baptism is not even practiced.

The first and foremost reason for baptism in the New Testament is that Jesus commanded it. In his final challenge and instruction to his disciples Jesus said, “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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20a NRSV, emphasis added). Obviously it is important to also understand why Jesus commanded it and what significance he understood baptism to have, but at this point it is enough to see that Jesus did not merely suggest baptism as a good idea for some; he commanded all his followers to take the step of baptism.

Not only did Jesus command his followers to be baptized, each of the gospels tell us that Jesus modeled it (Matt. 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:31-34). Of course, it is important to recognize, as Matthew’s version points out, that Jesus’ baptism was unique in many respects. While others came “confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:6 NRSV, passim) and underwent baptism as a kind of ritual cleaning “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4), Jesus the sinless one was baptized for neither one of these reasons. Jesus spoke of his baptism as being necessary “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

Fulfill (pleroo) carries with it, in Matthew, the idea of completion or bringing something to its destined end. 4 Thus Jesus considered his baptism among repentant Israel as a necessary step in his completion of God’s purpose of salvation. Through Christ’s identification with sinful {161} humanity he began what he would complete on the cross. Having identified publicly with sinful humanity in his life, he would bear their sin and its curse (Gal. 3:13), “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Although Jesus’ baptism was unique in most respects, his act of identification with us stands as an example for us to identify with Christ in Christian baptism.

A third reason why baptism is important can be seen from the fact that the believers in the New Testament practiced it. The book of Acts contains both instructions and illustrations of people believing and being baptized upon their confession of faith (e.g., Acts 2:38, 41; 8:13, 38; 10:47-48). The apostle Paul had been baptized and, in passages like Romans 6:3, he assumes that all of the believers have been baptized as an expression of their new life in Christ, using it as a reminder of what took place in that act (Rom. 6:4-11). And Peter reminds his fellow believers that their water baptism symbolized the salvation they experienced in Christ. Based on the evidence of the New Testament, J. I. Packer has concluded: “A church that did not require baptism, and an unbaptized Christian who did not ask for it, would be something of a contradiction in terms.” 5


In entering into discussions with pedobaptists (those who believe in and practice infant baptism) it soon becomes apparent that while we agree on the importance of being baptized, we disagree over our definition of it. “Baptizing” an infant for whom personal faith, repentance, and commitment are not present is very different than “baptizing” a believer who is giving outward expression to the inward reality of his/her conversion and commitment to Christ and the Christian community. Is it really appropriate to use the word baptism to describe these two very different acts?

One of the basic presuppositions that we bring to most conversations with people is the assumption that the words we use will be understood to contain the intended meaning. The other day my wife and I were having a conversation in which she used the words “a budding etymologist” to refer to our youngest son. But as she went on to describe his bug-catching adventures in the back yard, I realized that he was not a budding “etymologist” but an “entomologist.” If there had been disagreement between us at that point we would have turned, as we have been known to do at times, to our resident authority, Webster’s Dictionary, to clarify the meaning of our words.

But what do we do when as Christians we disagree over the {162} meaning of baptism? The obvious step should be to turn, not simply to our traditions, but to the New Testament to define it for us. So what is the meaning of baptism according to the New Testament?


The rite of Christian baptism was not a totally new phenomenon in New Testament times. The purification rites or ritual washings in the Old Testament, the possible (though debated) proselyte baptism of Gentile converts to Judaism, and the baptism performed by John the Baptist are antecedents to the practice of Christian baptism. 6 As with John’s baptism, for example, Christian baptism was from the very beginning an expression of repentance and faith (e.g., Acts 2:38; 8:12-13). Repentance—a turning from the ways that lead to death and to a belief in and following after God—forms the foundation of the Christian’s existence (Heb. 6:1; 9:14). The baptism of a believer, as Paul underlines in Romans 6:1-11, is essentially an enacted parable of the gospel. Wayne Grudem puts it this way:

The water of baptism is like waters of judgment—similar to the waters of the flood, and showing clearly what we deserve for our sins. Coming up out of the waters of baptism corresponds to being kept safe through the waters of the flood, the waters of God’s judgment on sin, and emerging to live in “newness of life” (cf. Rom. 6:4). 7

Baptism is the outward display of an inward response of repentance and faith to the proclamation of the gospel message. Like the ritual washings of the Old Testament (e.g., Ps. 51:7) and the baptism of John (Mark 1:4), the practice of Christian baptism also emphasizes the cleansing and forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; Heb. 10:22). The means of this cleansing and forgiveness are specified in Christian baptism as happening through Christ’s finished work on the cross (Heb. 10:10).

But baptism does not simply wash away sin like the cleansing rituals of the Old Testament and the baptism of John. Indeed, John the Baptist saw his baptism of repentance as paving the way for the one coming after him who would baptize believers with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). Thus, at the heart of the believer’s new life in Christ is the reception of the Holy Spirit (John 1:33; 7:38-39; Acts 2:38; 10:47-48; Rom. 8:9). Because of this close connection between baptism and the coming of the Spirit, we should not be surprised that many churches baptize by {163} sprinkling or pouring as the visual symbol of their reception of the Spirit.

In their 2002 Canadian Conference report, the Board of Faith and Life noted, “While there is still a strong commitment to combining baptism and church membership, it is also evident that there are a growing number of churches that are separating these two.” 8 This trend is directly counter to the New Testament teaching that baptism is the public mark of a believer’s entry into the visible body of Christ.

Sometimes people say that they are part of the “invisible” body of Christ, the eternal, redeemed family of God which is as old as the human race itself. This is true. Nonetheless, to say that we are part of the body of Christ without also being a part of a local church, the visible body of Christ, is to be in error.

The modern focus on the individual has largely eroded the biblical model of community that is inherent in the Bible’s understanding of membership (“member” in the New Testament literally means limb, and therefore always indicates a corporate/body image, e.g., in Eph. 4:25; 5:30). The Bible points out that in every area of life genuine commitment cannot stand alone (Josh. 24:22-27). A Christian disconnected from a church is like a football player without a team, a tuba player without an orchestra, a child without a family. When we are born into the family of God, we become part of the people of God. This inward or spiritual reality should find its outward expression in a commitment to a local church (Eph. 2:19-22; Heb. 10:25). After all, the Christian life is not just believing and being baptized; it includes belonging.


From the above definition of the meaning of baptism in the New Testament it becomes clear that, theologically, infant baptism does not measure up. Attempts by pedobaptists to see the element of faith, for example, as being present in infant baptism and then redefining it as the faith of the parents standing in on behalf of the child is a clear illustration of this. As Karl Barth himself noted,

From the standpoint of a doctrine of baptism, infant baptism can hardly be preserved without exegetical and practical artifices and sophisms—the proof to the contrary has yet to be supplied! One wants to preserve it only if one is resolved to do so on grounds which lie outside the biblical passages on baptism and outside the thing itself. 9

The key question, as the early Anabaptists like Menno Simons {164} rightly saw it, is, “Which act of baptism best measures up to the New Testament definition?” Though the so-called Anabaptists were accused of practicing rebaptism, they believed they were practicing a first true baptism, baptism as defined by the New Testament scriptures. 10 That is still the central issue in modern debates over baptism, and the New Testament doctrine of baptism remains the standard to which our practice ought to conform.


A key question that still remains is whether there is any evidence that the early church actually baptized children or infants. Given the Jewish practice of circumcision and given the statements in Acts about entire households being baptized, is it not possible or even likely that infants were baptized? For many pedobaptists an affirmative answer to this question becomes the primary justification for the practice of infant baptism. But can an affirmative answer to this question really be justified by the New Testament? 11

Several instances of the conversion of a whole “household” to the Christian Faith are provided in Acts. The first to be mentioned is that of Cornelius in Acts 11:14-15. Of Lydia at Philippi we read in Acts 16:15, “she and her household were baptized,” and of the jailer in 16:33 we are told, “he and his entire family were baptized.” Crispus, the synagogue ruler in 18:8, “became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.”

From these examples the question arises: Were very young children in a family baptized in these “household” conversions? First of all, we need to keep in mind that we cannot be certain either way whether these households included young children. Even if we assume for the moment that they did, the issue needs to be considered in more depth. The claim that statements referring to the “entire” family/household must relate to all its members without exception (including infants if they were present) would appear to be reasonable. But a closer look reveals that such an assumption may not be as reasonable as is so often assumed.

Let us look at the example of Cornelius in more detail. In Acts 11:14 Peter repeats the words given by the angel to Cornelius: “He will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” Peter continues, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning . . . , [so] who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:15, 17). So he ordered them to be baptized. {165}

Now if we turn back to 10:44-48, we read that

the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded . . . for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. . . . So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

There can be no doubt about the meaning of this passage: the entire household of Cornelius heard the word, all received the Spirit, all spoke in tongues, all were baptized. Are we therefore right to assume that any infants present also heard the word, received the Spirit, spoke with tongues, and were baptized? It seems quite unlikely, but such is the conclusion that the pedobaptist argument must face since all must be given the same meaning and force throughout the whole passage.

Had we the time and space we would see the same issue in each of the other references to “household” baptisms. What is clear is that Luke, in writing these narratives, does not have infant members of the family in view when he refers to entire households being converted and baptized. As we have seen, his language cannot be pressed to extend to them. Who he does have in mind, like the rest of the New Testament, are ordinary believers. The entire households in these examples were baptized because they saw and heard and believed the same message the head of their household had. Thus, the New Testament practice resonates with the New Testament meaning of baptism.


A final argument for infant baptism, which we can cover in only a cursory way, is the link pedobaptists see between the covenant of circumcision in the Old Testament and a covenant of baptism in the New Testament. While Paul recognizes a link or element of continuity between circumcision and baptism in Colossians 2:11-12, much of his arguments, such as we find in Galatians, focus on the elements of discontinuity. The very practice of circumcised Jews undergoing John’s baptism, and Jewish believers undergoing Christian baptism, is evidence of the distinctiveness they saw between the two.

As notes Beasley-Murray,

The major mistake of the writers of this school is their one-sided stressing of the elements of unity . . . and their ignoring of the equally clear elements of discontinuity, elements {166} which, in fact, often take the attention of the New Testament writers more than the elements of unity because they are so overwhelming. 12


As a pastor who frequently faces the kind of situation with which this article began, I believe in the importance of helping people work through this very challenging issue. There is nothing gained from trying to pressure people to take the step of believers baptism when they are not ready or when it is simply seen as a hoop to jump through to join the congregation. Frequently, the opportunity to spend time looking at the New Testament teaching on baptism in a small group interactive setting is extremely helpful. Not infrequently people take time working through several significant stages. For several couples in our congregation, the first step they took towards believers baptism was that of not having their infants baptized. Some time later they took the step of believers baptism as another but important step in their spiritual journey.

Frequently the believers baptism question reaches a point where it is no longer primarily theological but relational, i.e., the reaction of a person’s or a couple’s extended family. In such cases I draw on other people in my congregation who have gone through similar challenges. These modern Anabaptists are usually more than eager to come alongside in a sensitive and supportive way, both one-on-one and in our small group discussions on believers baptism. Even when people decide they are not ready to take the step of believers baptism, we encourage them to participate in almost any area of ministry, except that of the leadership board.


  1. See Ron Toews’ article, “The Case for Believer’s Baptism” (Mennonite Brethren Herald, 31 May 2002, 3-4), for a helpful statement and comparison of the infant baptism and believers baptism positions used in a local church context.
  2. Michale A. Lipe draws attention to the similar challenge many Baptist congregations are facing over believers baptism, “Is the Practice of Believers Baptism Drying Up?” Christian Week, 3 February 1998. Mennonite congregations also face the challenge of helping people to understand our position on nonviolence and peacemaking. {167}
  3. Gordon T. Smith notes, “Several church historians and theologians have noted that when baptism is neglected or intentionally ignored, substitutes are invented or borrowed to take the place of this mandated rite of initiation. The most obvious example is the altar call, which for many years was an indispensable feature of evangelism, so much so that there are yet some who cannot think of evangelism except in the context of mass crusades that conclude with ‘invitations.’ Charles Finney actually viewed the altar call and the ‘anxious seat’ as replacements for baptism” (Beginning Well [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001], 186).
  4. R. T. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 91.
  5. J. I. Packer, I Want to Be a Christian (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1977), 111.
  6. See David S. Dockery, “Baptism,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 55-56.
  7. Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, Tyndale New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 162-63.
  8. Mennonite Brethren Herald, 15 June 2002, 27.
  9. Quoted in George R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (London: Macmillan, 1962), 308.
  10. This point is so clearly made and illustrated in the movie “The Radicals” (Worcester, PA: Gateway Films/Vision Video, 1989), that I use the baptism debate and baptism scene in the “Welcome to the Family” class at our church.
  11. Those wishing to pursue this issue in detail will find chapter six of Beasley-Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament essential reading. Many of the points in this section are heavily dependent upon it.
  12. Beasley-Murray, 337.
David Esau graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1995 and has been the senior pastor at Cedar Park Church (MB) in Delta, British Columbia, since 1997. With the Canadian Christian Education Ministries, David has recently helped to develop a new baptism and communion resource (published by Kindred Productions).

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