Tag Archives: Great Commission

The Meaning of Baptism (Part 2 of 2)

by Kevin L. Hester

In my previous article, we examined the theological significance of baptism. We saw that baptism provides a picture of salvation from repentance to consummation in the resurrection of the last day. Baptism teaches us that our salvation comes by virtue of our union with Christ and wrests in His work on our behalf. We also noted that when an individual comes to baptism he or she testifies to the work of grace done in his or her life and pledges him or herself to a life of obedience to God’s covenant.

In this article, we will examine how these biblical truths of baptism impact our understanding of the proper subject of baptism (who is an appropriate candidate for baptism). We will see that believer’s baptism is the most appropriate understanding and application of these biblical images.

Biblical Data Concerning Believer’s Baptism

The primary passage that teaches believer’s baptism is the Great Commission of Christ to his disciples. This commission is found in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16. Since the authenticity of the Markan passage is not attested in many of the earlier manuscripts, we will here confine ourselves to the passage in Matthew.

Christ commands His disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. The verb here is “to make disciples.” It is surrounded by three attendant circumstance participles: go, baptize, and teach. The simplest and most probable reading of this verse is that in order to make disciples, the apostles must go, baptize, and teach. This teaching would be made up of Jesus’ commandment that is the Gospel. We should therefore see that any proper subject of baptism should be able to be taught.

Acts 2:38 also comes to bear on the concept of believer’s baptism. Peter commands the Jews on the day of Pentecost to “repent and be baptized.” This again would seem to imply that the proper subject of baptism should be able to repent.

These primary passages on baptism seem to indicate that it should be preceded by faith and repentance. In Christ’s command, one must be able to believe and be taught in order to be a disciple and therefore receive the ordinance of baptism. Since infants are incapable of faith, repentance, or belief, they should not be considered proper subjects of baptism.

However, proponents of infant baptism have raised a number of objections. Here we will consider a few of them.

Objections to Believer’s Baptism

One of the first arguments for infant baptism that deserves attention is the historical precedent of infant baptism. This cannot be denied. We know that by the third century Tertullian, speaking as an opponent of infant baptism, notes its practice. In response to this, we should first note that the concept of baptismal regeneration that came to be common in the primitive church would easily have led to this type of practice. As the early church came to understand baptism as necessary for salvation, it is easy to see how infant baptism could be so easily accepted. We should also note that although the practice of the early church is to be highly valued, only Scripture is to be seen as normative for the body of Christ.

Another common objection concerns the response of Christ to the disciples when they forbade the bringing of infants to Him for His blessing. In Matthew 19:14 Jesus says “suffer the little children to come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (AV) or the “kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (NASB). The assertion is that since the kingdom of heaven is made up of infants as well as believing adults then why should we not baptize them as well?

In his work Christian Baptism, the paedobaptist John Murray rightly identifies toioutos as referring to the class of infants, but he neglects to see the metonymy of the term “children” as a reference to those believing in Christ.[1] The kingdom does not belong to them exclusively, but to those that are “such as them.” Matthew 18:3 seems to shed more light on this passage. Here, Christ calls a child to Him and placing him on his knee he says, “unless you become like children you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” We see then that this verse speaks of the humility and trust of a child. In the light of this verse and its similarities with 19:14, we should likely interpret this verse in the same way.

Another common objection to believer’s baptism is the instances of household baptisms in the New Testament. In Acts 16:15, 33, and 1 Corinthians 1:6 we find mention of such baptisms. This argument from silence states that it is highly unlikely that none of the households mentioned contained infants. While it is possible that there would have been infants in such houses, we must make several observations.

First, in reference to “all” of the household being baptized, we must be careful to define “all” according to its discourse. If we see the Great Commission of Christ in the background, we must infer that no infants were baptized in such houses. Moreover, the baptism of the jailer’s household in Acts 16:33 is followed by a statement in verse 34 that, “he and all his household had believed.” This demonstrates explicitly, even if we deny the comment regarding the discourse of “all”, that all the members of his household had fulfilled the requirements of baptism before the ordinance was offered.

Perhaps the strongest argument against believer’s baptism is the relationship between the circumcision of the Abrahamic covenant and the baptism of the New Covenant. Both were initiatory rites of spiritual covenants. Both were administered by Christ and extended to the members of the covenant and their children. It is also presumed that the two, respectively, are “signs and seals” of the same reality. Because of these similarities and because infants were circumcised then infants also ought to be baptized.

The first two premises will be granted.  However, we should not deny the differences of the two covenants. The New Covenant is called a “better” or a “more complete” covenant in Hebrews 8:6. The superiority lies not in the spiritual nature of the New Covenant over the physical nature of the Old because both are spiritual. The superiority lies in the “promise.” Namely, the word will be placed upon their minds and written upon their hearts.

Under the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision was meant to denote participation in the covenant as a natural descendant of Abraham and the inner reality of faith. Paul reminds us that not all Israel is Israel and there is a circumcision that is uncircumcision (see Rom. 2:25 and 9:6). Ishmael was circumcised as a descendant of Abraham, yet he did not exhibit the inner spiritual reality. In the New Covenant the sign is narrowed to denote only the spiritual reality. Baptism is therefore more narrow than circumcision in scope even though it proclaims many of the same promises. The faith which was meant to be portrayed in circumcision has been made a reality in the New Covenant where Christ has written the law upon our hearts and placed it in our minds. This reality seems to demonstrate that believer’s baptism, as the initiatory rite of the New Covenant, is better in that it more closely appropriates the spiritual reality of the covenant of redemption.

It should also be noted that Abraham was specifically commanded to circumcise infants, yet we have not been so commanded to follow this practice in baptism. Similarly, while women were not circumcised under the Abrahamic covenant, they are admitted to baptism because of explicit references to their baptism in the New Testament.


We have examined the signification of baptism and its promises. We have also looked at the biblical passages which seem to teach the precedent of believer’s baptism and attempted to answer many objections to a believer’s baptism-only position. It seems that as baptism signifies many aspects of redemption such as regeneration, union with Christ and adoption-all of which are received through faith-it is best to adopt the position that believer’s baptism only is to be preferred.

The biblical data seems to agree with this assertion in that it appears to teach that candidates for baptism must be able to repent, believe, and be taught. We have also seen that the application of circumcision to infants is not to be carried over to baptism because of the narrower application of the New Covenant. It seems then best to conclude that the proper subject of baptism should be a believer in Christ and not infants who are incapable of such belief.


[1] John Murray, Christian Baptism (Philadelphia: The Committee on Christian Education, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1952), 61. This work was reissued under the same title by P&R Publishing in 1992.

The Meaning of Baptism (Part 1 of 2)

by Kevin L. Hester

Since at least the seventeenth century, the doctrine of baptism has been hotly contested. Debates have raged over the mode, significance, efficacy, and proper subjects of baptism. Now four centuries later many have grown accustomed to the practice, but have thought little about the theological aspects of baptism. In this article, and a subsequent one, I hope to prompt the reader to reflect on some of these important issues.

We will first examine baptism as it is presented in Scripture. We will begin by looking at what baptism signifies. Second, we will reflect on some of the biblical data regarding the subject of baptism, and respond to some of the most common objections made by proponents of infant baptism.

Baptism Instituted

The ordinance of baptism was instituted by Christ to be performed in His church until His return. The Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20 includes, as part of the discipleship process, instructions to baptize believers. Thus, baptism is linked to conversion and discipleship. In baptism we follow the command of our Redeemer and demonstrate the Word in a visible form. What aspects of the Word are demonstrated by the act of baptism?

Cleansing from Sin

The first signification of baptism is cleansing. The Greek word baptizo literally means “to wash or cleanse.” Cleansing is commonly associated with water and therefore explains the element of water in baptism. Baptism is a picture of the regeneration of the new believer.

In Romans 6:6 we read that in baptism we signify putting off the old man and putting on the new man. This pictures the new birth of the believer wrought by the Holy Spirit that is commonly called regeneration. We also find the cleansing motif expressed as an image of forgiveness of sins. In Acts 2:38 and 22:16, baptism, along with faith, is so closely associated with salvation that it is pictured as an aspect of this cleansing from sin. The efficacy of baptism in this process is debated, but it is sufficient here to note the close relationship of the ordinance to the concept of forgiveness.

Union with Christ

Baptism also demonstrates our position in Christ. Not only are we seen as forgiven, and therefore right before God, but we are placed in union with Christ, our Redeemer. Romans 6:3-6 speaks of the fact that as we are baptized into Christ we are so joined to Him that His death is our death and our sin is His sin. In this way, baptism displays the satisfaction view of the atonement as it expresses our union with Christ and all its concomitant blessings.

Our position in reference to other believers is also set forth. In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul argues that just as there is one faith, one hope, and one baptism, all believers are united with one another as they are united with Christ. Thus, our unity with other believers in a life of discipleship is also an import of baptism.

A New Life of Discipleship

As the believer moves from spiritual death to spiritual life in regeneration, baptism also visibly proclaims this change. Subsequent to this spiritual change, the act of baptism also serves as a pledge on the part of the believer to live as a disciple of Christ. In baptism, we have the believer’s visible testimony of an inward spiritual change. The believer’s repentance and faith are typically proclaimed in the words of institution commonly used in baptism as the officiant verifies repentance and faith.

In the history of the early church, baptism usually came at the conclusion of an extended period of catechesis. The believer would affirm his or her faith through a baptismal creed and commit himself or herself to a life of obedience to Christ. Baptism was in this respect a covenantal commitment on the part of the believer. This aspect of baptism is seen in Paul’s reflection in Romans 6 where baptism serves as the motive for holy living. Paul argues that the purpose of our baptism was so that we might “walk in newness of life” (v.4). We are called to consider ourselves “dead to sin” (v. 11) because we are now “slaves to righteousness” (vv. 18-19).

Promises of Baptism

Scripture also ties a number of biblical promises to the act of baptism as if our baptism serves as a pledge or guarantee of their receipt. First among these is adoption. Galatians 3:26 promises a place to us as sons and daughters of God in light of our baptism. In verse 29 of the same chapter we see that baptism also speaks of our participation in the Abrahamic covenant. We are seen as heirs according to the promise that was made to him.

Through baptism we also receive the promise of the resurrection of our bodies. Romans 6:5 proclaims that if we are raised with Christ in baptism we will also be raised with His likeness after the image of His resurrection.

Finally, the ordinance of baptism promises us the gift of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist proclaims in Matthew 3:11 that the one who comes after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Peter also speaks of this connection in Acts 2:38 when he promises the Holy Spirit as the attendant circumstance of belief and baptism.


It is for these reasons that the Protestant reformers referred to the ordinances as a “visible word.” As ministers, our baptismal services should reflect Scripture’s truth. We should preach and teach baptism as a reminder of the forgiveness experienced by the believer. The atonement shines forth in the picture of baptism as both a cleansing from sin and a union with Christ.

But baptism speaks to more than the initiation of salvation; it speaks also to its consummation. As we put on Christ in baptism, we commit ourselves to covenant obedience. We testify to our conversion and pledge ourselves to a new life lived under the guidance of the Spirit and the authority of our Lord. The promise of our baptism will be received when this new life is empowered by the Holy Spirit and eschatologically fulfilled in the resurrection on the last day.