“We will work together for the continuance of a faithful evangelical ministry in this church, as we sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline, and doctrines.”
So reads our church covenant. But why that part about sustaining the ordinances? Here are seven biblical reasons to make the ordinance of believers’ baptism more than an afterthought in our church’s ordinary Lord’s Day services.
1. The Marks of the Church
Jesus gave the Lord’s Supper to the church at Passover (Matt 26:26-29) and he gave baptism to the church just before his ascension (Matt 28:18-20). Wherever Christ’s gospel is rightly preached and His ordinances rightly administered, there you have a local church, bought with Jesus’ blood, ruled by Christ their King. Baptism, then, is a privilege, and a responsibility, reserved for one institution alone—the local church! So why let it drown amid a sea of other activities that are often (let’s admit) more peripheral to the church’s identity? Christ ordained baptism, so it belongs in our ‘ordinary’ worship. Of course, we cannot control, and dare not manipulate, how many baptisms we administer. We’d rather have fewer baptisms of genuine converts than more baptisms of false ones. But when baptisms do occur, they should take their rightful place among the other elements of public worship to illustrate the gospel and galvanize the congregation around its message and mission.
2. The Message of the Church
Along with the Lord’s Supper, baptism is one of only two dramatic depictions of the gospel that Christ permits us. People have been visual learners at least since Eve shut her ears to God’s word and instead “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes” (Genesis 3:6). Yet baptism is no lifeless prop. It is a moving picture of our consciences being cleansed by Christ (1 Peter 3:21; cf. Titus 3:5; Hebrews 9:14), and of our spiritual union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3–4)—the outward sign that signifies the inner reality already present. And it is a moving picture in two ways: (1) it’s an enacted parable (kinetic rather than static), and (2) it moves our hearts to worship God and thank Him for His cleansing mercy and life-giving power to us in Christ through His Spirit. It reminds us of our own cleansing and new life in Christ. Certainly the message preached should always be front and center, never displaced. The pulpit is the context for the baptistery. Word governs ordinance. But the moving picture is worth one of the primetime slots in the church’s public life. Just as Scripture mandates that we read the Word, preach the Word, pray the Word, and sing the Word in our public services, so it mandates that we see the Word in the ordinances. Baptisms belong in our services, not after them.
3. The Mission of the Church
The church’s mission is to make disciples for Jesus. How do we do that? By baptizing them into God’s triune name and teaching them to observe all Jesus commanded us (Matthew 28:18-20). Baptism is the first public act of obedient discipleship to Christ. If it’s not an afterthought to our mission, then why make it an afterthought to our meetings?
4. The Membership of the Church
Baptism is how we go public with our Christian faith, not only individually, but in our association with Christ’s visible body. Paul says, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body . . . ” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Because we were baptized into individual union with Christ, our baptism also unites us to Christ’s universal body, and every local church is an expression of that universal church—the local makes the invisible (at least partly) visible. Therefore, it makes most sense to conduct baptisms while we’re all gathered together as members of Christ’s visible body—in our main public gatherings.
5. The (Dual) Testimony of the Church
The church’s public testimony in the community is bound up with how we affirm the testimony of new Christians and how we take them in as new members. When we publicly baptize new converts who can explain what their own baptism signifies—who can testify to the fact that their consciences really have been cleansed, and they really have been raised to new life and love in Christ—then the church’s public testimony is not only protected from the danger of including false converts who have the outward sign but not the inward reality. It’s also positively enhanced by the clarity and genuineness of the new convert’s testimony, so that an unbeliever might “worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:25). Additionally, in baptism, the church itself testifies to the reality of the new Christian’s conversion. Baptism is not just the new Christian’s way of saying to the church “I’m one of you!” Baptism is also the church’s way of saying “you are one of us!” It’s the initial way we include new converts among our number (e.g., Acts 2:41). And when we do this rightly (by baptizing only repentant believers), it’s the congregation testifying to the new convert as part of his own assurance—an external (even institutional) confirmation of a spiritual reality.
6. The Training of the Church
For baptisms to rightly illustrate the gospel, they need to be connected to the gospel’s truth and power in the life of the person being baptized. That means that the elders and other mature members need to train new converts in making the gospel clear in their baptismal testimonies. When elders teach new converts to clarify God’s holiness and truth, their own sin, Christ’s atonement on the cross, and their own repentance and faith toward Jesus, then magnificent things can happen. Unbelievers can be saved through such testimonies. Timid Christians can learn how to present the gospel clearly from the example of “non-professionals”. Mature Christians are reminded again of the simplicity and power of the gospel. And the whole congregation can learn to discern that this is in fact one of Christ’s sheep…not a wolf.
7. The Trust of the Church
When baptismal candidates are trained by their elders to give a Christ-centered public testimony that makes the gospel clear, the congregation has even more reason to trust that the elders are leading the way in making disciples and training each of them to proclaim the gospel. Current members are also given more reason to trust that the elders are acting as responsible shepherds by guarding the front door into the flock so that, as far as humanly possible, only genuinely repentant Christians who understand and obey the gospel are admitted into the church’s membership.
In baptism, we see the cleansing, life-giving power of the gospel, in a living emblem. We see Christian regeneration dramatized. We see our union with Christ symbolized. We see the cross of discipleship re-enacted based on the authority of Christ Himself. Shouldn’t we want to see more episodes of that drama in regular syndication as part of our local gatherings? After all, if the church doesn’t give baptism a slot in its primetime, then who in the world will?