Once we recognize that Christ exerts his authority over the church by means of the NT Scriptures, then we are prepared to seek answers to other aspects of the question “What makes Baptist churches different from other churches?” For most people, the thing that distinguishes Baptists from other churches is found in their name, which clearly suggests that the nature and practice of baptism is a key issue. In some ways this is true, although the issue of baptism is not the most important distinguishing mark of Baptists, but it does illustrate the importance of the church appealing to the NT rather than church history or hierarchy, or even the OT Scriptures as the final authority for faith and practice. There are 2 questions related to baptism that must be addressed.
What does baptism mean?
Linguistically, the term baptize means “to dip into water, or immerse.” This usage is commonplace both in sacred and secular Greek texts before and during NT times, and is clearly indicated in several key passages in the NT. For instance, John baptized “in the Jordan River” (Mark 1:4-5) and when Philip baptized the Ethiopian, “both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water” and “came up out of the water” (Acts 8:38-39). Any unprejudiced reading of these passages leads to the conclusion that baptism is the immersion of a person in water, but what is the significance of this ritual?
The symbolism of baptism is not the washing away of sins, but of identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.1 In Romans 6:3-5, Paul vividly describes how the believer’s death to sin and resurrection to new life in Christ is portrayed in his baptism. Baptism is an important picture of the gospel and of the disciple’s identification with Christ (cf. Gal. 3:26-27), and it is the first step of obedience for every new Christian (Matt. 28:19-20). For any professing believer to remain unbaptized is to ignore Jesus’ command to his followers and refuse the most basic act of obedience to the Lord.
Who can be baptized?
If baptism is a symbolic act of identification with Christ and of obedience to Christ, then it follows that only those who have made a credible profession of faith in Christ ought to be baptized. The command of Matt. 28:19-20 to baptize those who have been made followers of Jesus reveals that baptism is closely linked with discipleship. In other words, those who have become his disciples are to be baptized, without exception or extension, and in this we follow the example of the entire NT church (Acts 2:41; 8:12,36-38; 10:47; 16:31-34). We do not baptize others in the hopes that they will someday become disciples, therefore we do not baptize infants. This is not because we wish to prevent children from coming to Christ (Mark 10:14), but because there is no NT command to do so, nor are there any examples of infants being baptized in the NT.
Those passages which speak of households being baptized exclude infant baptism by emphasizing the faith of those who were baptized. In the case of Lydia, it is said that “The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14) and to the Philippian jailer Paul said he and all those in his house must “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” to be saved (v.31). Baptists believe that baptism is immersion as a picture of the gospel, a confession of faith in Christ, and the believer’s first step of obedience to the Lord.
1 Peter emphatically declares that baptism isn’t about washing, but is closely tied to the resurrection of Christ in 1 Pet. 3:21.