We Christians like to tell people where and how to look. To those crushed under the weight of sin or guilt we say, “Look to the cross! Look to the cross and see God’s justice for your sin being satisfied in his Son.” To those wearied by sorrow and suffering we say, “Look forward! God has promised that this light and momentary affliction will soon give way to an eternal weight of glory.” To those who are being persecuted we say, “Look up! Look up to the great cloud of witnesses, to those who have gone before and who remained faithful.” At all these times—and in many more—we say, “Look! Look! Look!”
But there is one place I fear we look too seldom. There is one point where we ought to fix our gaze in troubling circumstances. We will be both challenged and encouraged, if only we will look—if only we will look to our baptism.*
Baptism is a God-given ordinance that is packed with significance. At its best, it is a rite that initiates the believer’s entrance into the visible church. It is a church’s way of acknowledging that an individual has made a credible profession of faith and shown evidence of true belief. If the church’s role is to guard the what and who of the gospel—to answer the questions “What is the gospel?” and “Who legitimately professes that gospel?”—, baptism is a means through which a church declares, “We believe this person professes the true gospel, so is a true Christian.” In baptism they welcome him or her into the visible church.
If this is what baptism is all about, it is no small thing for a church to baptize someone! It places on churches the responsibility of carefully examining every person who seeks baptism. Churches need to dig beneath the request and the enthusiasm to carefully seek out evidence of saving faith.** Where there is no evidence, there must be no baptism. Where there is insufficient evidence, the church must be willing to delay baptism. Only where there is clear evidence of true faith should the church welcome that person to the waters. Why? There are a number of reasons, but I would like to focus on just one of them.
When a church takes baptism seriously, this baptism becomes a pillar or monument the Christian can look back on later in life. When times are difficult, when assurance is lacking, when faith is wavering, we can encourage that person to “Look! Look back to your baptism! Look back and remember what you professed on that day, who you loved as you went under those waters. Look back and remember what you testified. Look back and see that people you loved and trusted had heard your testimony and were convinced it was true! Look back and believe today what you believed then!” This kind of encouragement is available to all who have been baptized, but is strengthened among those who have been baptized in a church that duly guards the ordinance.
In some churches, baptism is treated flippantly, so provided immediately and thoughtlessly. Those who look back on such a baptism may rightly conclude little more than, “I had a religious experience in that moment.” They heard an emotional sermon, rushed to the front, and were immediately baptized. In some churches baptism is expected and pressured, so may later convey little more than, “I adhered to the expectations of my family and community.” They did what they had to to maintain peace or reputation. But in sound churches, baptism is treated soberly. Those who lead the church take seriously the responsibility to evaluate the person seeking baptism and to verify that their faith is genuine. They will do this imperfectly, of course, which is why there is not only a gateway into the visible church through baptism, but also a doorway out of it through church discipline. But their scrutiny in the present can serve as the basis for confidence in the future.
It has long been my observation that baptists have been taught to look back to their baptism with fear rather than faith, with skepticism rather than confidence. I believe this is a direct result of the church’s failure to properly guard the ordinance. Such skepticism is not illegitimate when churches refuse to take baptism seriously. But when we treat baptism seriously, when we do our utmost to only baptize those who have made a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ, we offer them confidence on the day and in the future.
*My conviction is that the Bible tells us to baptize believers, not the children of believers, though I gladly admit that both are within the bounds of Christian, Protestant, Reformed orthodoxy. I write this article primarily for the benefit of my fellow credo-baptists. Plus, paedobaptists already tend to do what I’m calling for in this article…
**This is not to say we need to expect those we baptize to have encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible or of Christian doctrine. Baptism is for those who believe, so our task is simple: to verify, as far as we can determine, that they have a genuine faith. The particulars may vary widely from age-to-age and place-to-place. We may, for example, need to move slower in a context where baptism enhances reputations in the eyes of the wider culture versus a context where it marks people for discrimination or death.