Baptism And The Unity Of Christians -- By: Tom Wells

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 08:3 (Summer 1999)
Article: Baptism And The Unity Of Christians
Author: Tom Wells


Baptism And The Unity Of Christians

Tom Wells

Among the differences which divide Christians baptism looms very large. Unlike other doctrines and practices of the church our differences on baptism fall along a number of lines at once. We seem unable to agree on any of the following: (1) Mode of baptism. (2) Proper candidates for baptism. (3) Proper administrators for baptism. (4) Effects of baptism.

Most agree on only two things: baptism requires water, and baptism is appropriate at the outset (in some sense) of the Christian life. Apart from these marginal agreements the word “baptism” is a symbol without meaning—and this after 2000 years of use! Looked at in this way, “baptism” bears all the earmarks of a grand tragedy. No wonder a few groups have ignored it altogether.

Let’s look at these differences.

Mode Of Baptism

Three “modes”1 of baptism have been widely used among Christians: immersion, pouring, and sprinkling. In immersion the candidate is dipped under water. Variations include dipping either forward or backward and immersing the candidate either once in the name of the Trinity or three times, once for each person of the Trinity. These variations are themselves the subject of vigorous debate among some groups of Christians. The reason is not hard to find: symbolism is involved. Each group reasonably contends

that the symbol must agree, as far as possible, with the thing it signifies. The subject is further complicated by the possibility that baptism signifies more than one thing. Immersionists, for example, might contend for two meanings or more, including a thorough “drenching” with the Holy Spirit and the Christian’s joint burial and resurrection with Jesus Christ.

Symbolism, of course, also enters into pouring and sprinkling. Those who practice pouring water over the head and body of the candidate often want to show, by a figure, the effect of the outpouring of the Spirit on believers. Others practice trine pouring, symbolizing our coming under the lordship of the Trinity. Those who sprinkle may be most interested in demonstrating the effect of cleansing from sin, using a mode that was prominent in the Old Testament for the washing away of guilt. Those who practice each of these modes point to texts and situations in the New Testament which bolster their views.2

Proper Candidates For Baptism

We are also divided on this question. Baptists hold that only those who can testify to believing in Christ ought to be baptized. Other Christians baptize in...

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