What is baptism?

As Baptists, it makes sense that the subject of baptism is significant to us, but it is also true that Christians have disagreed about the ordinance from the earliest days of the church. To that end, many tracts and books have been written to explain and clarify the Biblical teaching on the meaning, symbolism, execution, and proper subjects of baptism. To that end, John Broadus, seminary professor and missionary to Robert E. Lee’s army during the Civil War, wrote a defense of the Baptist view of baptism entitled Immersion Essential to Christian Baptism.

Now some people would suggest that this is much ado about nothing, because Christ has only told us to baptize, but nowhere does the NT prescribe the mode of baptism. Broadus, however, argues that to use the phrase, “mode of baptism,” seems to beg the question, as if the manner of performing baptism were not contained in the meaning of the term itself. He says, Our Lord told us to baptize; what right have we to alter his appointment?” And he explains, “He did not tell us to be baptized in the Jordan, or in a river as he was, but he told us to be baptized; and we do not insist on the Jordan, or any river, or any other mere circumstance, but we insist on the baptizing.” So the real question we must answer is, “What then do the Scriptures teach as to the action which constitutes baptism?” It doesn’t matter what Christians have taught or done in the past or what others have believed, but only what our Lord has told us to do. And furthermore, it is the duty of every Christian to decide this question for himself by his own examination of Scripture.

One of the first points of observation is that the word baptize is only borrowed into English from the Greek New Testament. While the average Christian is not familiar with Greek, this need not hinder his ability to answer this question. He notices, for instance, that Jesus himself was baptized in the river Jordan and when it was done he came up out of the water. And he also observes that John baptized in Aenon near Salim, “because there was much water there.” He also sees in Acts that Philip, when he was about to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch, went down into the water and when he came up out of the water, the Spirit caught Philip away. When he reads Romans 6, he finds the apostle Paul comparing baptism to burial and using the same picture in Colossians 2:12 to argue that he was buried with Christ by baptism, and so he was also raised with him to live a new life. What will this average Christian conclude concerning the nature of baptism?

Broadus shares a story to illustrate his point:

The summer after the battle of Gettysburg, I was preaching in a Virginia brigade at the camp below Orange Court House, during the great and blessed revival in Lee’s army. Many soldiers were finding Christian hope. After preaching one day in an old church near the camp, a Presbyterian chaplain arose, called up several soldiers, and proceeded to “baptize” them, as he termed it, from a little bowl of water. When the services were about to close, a Baptist chaplain invited the congregation to go after dismission to a baptistery which had been prepared at the foot of the hill, where the ordinance of baptism would be administered. He handed me his Bible as we went down the hill, asking me to read some passages and pray. I read the account of the baptism of Jesus, the commission in which he enjoins baptism, the account of Philip and the eunuch, and the passage in Romans, and then many soldiers were baptized. As the crowd went away, a soldier was heard to say to his comrades, “I tell you what, fellows, this that they did down here was a great deal more like them Scriptures than what they did up yonder.” Can anybody wonder that he thought so? Would this not be the general verdict of plain men, if they would just look on and consider it?

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