A historical look — Baptism: what’s the big deal?

The meaning and mode of baptism is a demarcation line within evangelical Christianity. Some denominations that preach salvation by faith alone and in Christ alone also baptize infants or sprinkle adults.

Baptists, who teach that only believers should be baptized and these by immersion, are among a small number (though large in membership) of Christian groups that attach great importance to what we see as simply scriptural guidelines for administering and understanding the ordinance.

For Baptists, believer’s baptism is the first step of obedience in the Christian’s life and marks his identification with a local church.

Although modern Baptists would not consider this understanding innovative, it was the cause of great consternation when it was revived in the early 16th century.

The great reformers of Christianity?Martin Luther of Germany and Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, both of Switzerland?advocated a drastic return to scriptural authority in the teachings and practice of Christian churches?a significant reform but not a total one.

Some of Zwingli’s students, heartened by his teachings from the Greek New Testament (and not, significantly, from just the passages approved by the Roman church), kept reading and applied biblical precepts to their lives and ministries far beyond the reforms of their teacher. One of these more radical reforms was the practice of believers’ baptism.

Zwingli swerved violently away from the Catholic teaching that baptism has a regenerative effect. Baptism was, to him, merely a sign of joining the Christian society. He equated it with the circumcision of Jewish baby boys and further identified God’s chosen within his Zurich parish with spiritual Israel.

This understanding of baptism was as extra-biblical as the Catholic one, though perhaps not as damaging to the doctrine of salvation. His radical students were pejoratively called “Anabaptists,” or “re-baptizers.” They hated the term because they did not consider any baptism but believers’ baptism valid.

The term did associate them with an earlier heresy though, and cast them into the role of outcasts in the minds of many Germans and Swiss.

Baptism was only one issue among many. These early Baptists also rejected alcohol, rich foods, fine clothing, coarse language, the death penalty, and the wedding of church and state. This last issue proved significant. It was their teaching that Christians should not obey the state in religious matters, or even participate in civil matters, that threatened the growing state churches of the reformers. War with the Catholic nations was immanent and the teaching that Christians should not take up arms was seen as a threat to the Reformation that could not be ignored.

Our Baptist forbears were drowned, beheaded, burned, and hounded from their homes in a persecution that eradicated the sect in Lutheran Germany. They were persecuted in Catholic and Protestant Europe alike. It wasn’t until they took root in the New World that they found safety and freedom. Today they exist as Amish, Mennonite, Shaker, and Baptist Christians, along with a few other small free-church groups such as Evangelical Free churches and Bible churches.

Back to baptism, though. Charges against the earliest of the radical reformers were that they had embraced “Anabaptism,” which was shorthand for various beliefs called treason by civil church leaders, including Zwingli.

Believers’ baptism was an important part of following Christ to early Baptists and an important part of their offense against a partially reformed church. On the way to his execution in Zurich, Felix Manz (one of the first Baptist martyrs) witnessed to his executioners, upheld believers’ baptism, and praised God for the privilege of suffering for the truth. He was then trussed up and thrown into the river to drown outside the city where his teacher taught him to read the New Testament.

The scriptural mode of baptism was, for these stalwart preachers, no less a part of the gospel than the nature of redemption. The simple truth of the Bible was compelling to them and they would not give it up to save their lives.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
Most Read

East Texas church seeing ‘little things that have huge effects’ through student ministry

MARSHALL—For many, youth ministry has a distinctive texture: big and loud. But for John Bailey, student pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Marshall, pointing the next generation to Christ is just as much about things simple, …

Stay informed on the news that matters most.

Stay connected to quality news affecting the lives of southern baptists in Texas and worldwide. Get Texan news delivered straight to your home and digital device.