Believer’s baptism is the only biblical approach, SBTS panelists say

Communications Staff — May 3, 2007

Biblical baptism is the baptism of genuine believers by immersion in the presence of a community of believers that holds to this view of baptism, professors argued during a panel discussion, April 18, at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Responding to some evangelicals today who suggest that such an approach to baptism should not be a requirement for church membership, Russell D. Moore, dean of the School of Theology, said Scripture requires believer’s baptism.

“When Jesus said go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, the question is did Jesus mean anything specific?” said Moore, who also serves as senior vice president of academic administration. “If Jesus simply meant ‘do something with water,’ then we have more freedom in this area. But that is not what Jesus meant. If baptism is the immersion of the believer in water upon a profession of faith in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit then we really don’t have freedom to tinker around with that definition. This is what Jesus has commanded us to do and therefore that is what we are to do.

“I can respect a Presbyterian who says baptism is the sprinkling of an infant into the covenant community. I disagree with him, but I can respect that understanding. That is very different from someone saying, ‘we believe baptism is immersion, but as long as you think what was done to you was baptism we are going to welcome you into the fellowship of the church.’ I don’t think we have the biblical freedom to do that.”

The James P. Boyce Society sponsored the event, which addressed several contemporary issues pertaining to baptism.

Thomas J. Nettles, professor of historical theology, Stephen Wellum, professor of Christian theology and editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, and Greg Wills, professor of church history and director of the Center for Study of the Southern Baptist Convention, joined Moore on the panel.

Wills argued that evidence of conversion, which contains two elements, is the only requirement for baptism and must be confirmed before this act of obedience can be carried out.

“Evidence of conversion requires first a conviction of sin – the belief that I can bring nothing to the table when it comes to salvation — and second a recognition of forgiveness – a belief that I have been forgiven through the shed blood of Christ Jesus on the cross,” he said. “We need to be careful and figure out the best way to do this [determine if people are Christians]. Some pastors interview candidates, some churches have interview committees and something like this should be in place.”

Wills and Moore agreed that as soon as credible evidence is presented baptism should take place. “It is a question of a church having confidence that this is a believer,” Moore said. “There may be instances where a person can be baptized immediately and there are times where the congregation may need more time to determine whether or not a person is a believer. We shouldn’t put arbitrary rules on how long to wait to baptize someone.”

Wellum authored an essay in the recently released book “Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ,” in which he analyzed the relationship between the Old and New covenants in Scripture and responded to key biblical arguments for infant baptism. Summarizing his case, Wellum said proponents of infant baptism fail to emphasize the Christological element that pervades every covenant made by God in Scripture.

“My argument is that covenant theology has misunderstood the relationship between the covenants,” he said. “They have tended to flatten the covenants. We have covenants, plural, in Scripture and it is crucial to place these covenants in their immediate context and then [understand] how that passage is ultimately consummated in Jesus Christ. The missing ingredient is a Christological focus. Covenant theology tends to move quickly from Israel to the church, instead of recognizing as you move from Eden to Noah to Abraham to Sinai to David that all of the covenants are Christological in focus.”

While padeobaptists connect the sign of circumcision in the Old Testament with baptism in the New Testament, Wellum and Nettles agreed that Scripture does not warrant such an approach.

“As you come to the nature of the New Covenant as anticipated in the Old Testament and picked up in the New, there is the anticipation that the structure of this covenant changes,” Wellum said. “The presence of one Mediator brings a change in the nature of that community from a believing and unbelieving community (Old Testament Israel) to a regenerate community (New Testament church). The sign of the New Testament community is for believers who have faith and union with Christ.”

Nettles noted that circumcision under the Old Covenant is fulfilled in the New Covenant not by baptism, but by regeneration.

“The Old Covenant was promising that the New Covenant would be a circumcision of the heart,” he said. “Paul says in Philippians 3 that we are the true circumcision who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus and who put no confidence in the flesh. Basically, circumcision is all of the things that accompany regeneration. When you have that kind of specific statement about what circumcision is, you have a direct apostolic statement as to what the fulfillment of that type is.”

Baptism should never be done in a vacuum, but must be practiced in the presence of a congregation of believers who hold to believer’s baptism, Nettles said.

“You can have a believer’s baptism by immersion in a Presbyterian church, but it is not the witness that Christ calls for,” he said.

“The witness is the witness of the entire congregation to the unity built upon the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and our unity as regenerate people. A congregation that does not have a clear view of baptism in that way that nevertheless will baptize occasionally by immersion, that is not a person — in my opinion — that has been baptized in a New Testament way.”

Moore said it is imperative for church leaders to emphasize and reemphasize the biblical teaching on baptism to regain the lost sense of importance and priority ascribed to baptism by the typical church member.

“The reason why baptism seems like a peripheral issue to a lot of people is because for so long our churches have treated it as a peripheral issue,” he said. “We spend time explaining what we do not mean by baptism, but we not teach on the necessity, importance and gravity of baptism. We don’t have the sense of weight of we are acting here as a congregation announcing that this person is in union with Christ. I think that it will take 10, 20, 30 years of churches reclaiming that importance [for people to recover a biblical approach to baptism].”

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