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What is a Reformed Baptist Church? (2) Baptism of Disciples Only by Immersion Only

by Pastor Lars Larson, PhD line

(A sermon delivered on January 25, 2008, at the First Baptist Church, Leominster, Massachusetts, USA)


          Last Lord’s day we began to address matters of our faith that differentiate us as Reformed Baptists from non-Baptist Reformed groups.  We dealt with the nature of the local church.  In contrast to our Reformed paedobaptist friends, that is, those who baptize infants, Baptists believe that only disciples of Jesus Christ, those who have experienced new life in Jesus Christ, should be admitted to church membership.  The New Testament teaches that the membership of a local church should be comprised of only those who have repented of sin and turned to the Lord Jesus Christ in faith and obedience.  Paedobaptists, that is, churches that practice infant baptism, do not believe the membership of a local church should be restricted to those who are born again.  They believe and teach that children of believers become members of the church through baptism.  And so there is a fundamental difference in what we believe constitutes a local church. 
         Today I would like us to consider the obvious difference that we have with our paedobaptist friends, that being the mode of baptism—immersion only, and the subjects of baptism—disciples only.  Now rather than being paedobaptist, Baptists are often referred to as credobaptist.  Whereas a paedobaptist believes in infant baptism; a credobaptist believes there must first be a confession of faith (credo) prior to baptism.

            I.  The Biblical teaching respecting the mode of baptism-- immersion only

          Although many churches practice baptism by the mode of sprinkling water upon the one being baptized, and some practice baptism by pouring water on the head of those baptized, the Bible neither commands nor illustrates baptism but by immersion only.  Many paedobaptists have acknowledged this.  John Calvin, himself a paedobaptist, who wrote some very hard things against those who practiced baptism by immersion, wrote these words:

Whether the person baptized is to be wholly immersed, and that whether once or thrice, or whether he is only to be sprinkled with water, is not of the least consequence: churches should be at liberty to adopt either according to the diversity of climates, although it is evident that the term baptize means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive Church.  (Calvin’s Institutes, Book III, Chapter 15, Part 2, Section 19.)

This is a common acknowledgement among numbers of paedobaptists.
           Let us consider the arguments for baptism by immersion.  First, the Greek word, baptizo, means to dip or immerse.  As one has written,

The clear and simple meaning of baptizo in the New Testament, when describing the physical baptism of disciples, is to dip or immerse.  This understanding is based on consistent etymology[1], historical usage in Josephus[2], and the internal grammar of both the Old and New testaments.[3]

Paedobaptists resist this argument, saying that the Greek word does not mean this, but their efforts are quite futile and are commonly shown to be weak and flawed.(4)  The fact is that most Greek lexicons provide as their definition of baptizo as “to dip” or “to immerse.”[5] 

          Second, the record of those who were baptized as recorded in the New Testament is consistent with setting suggesting immersion as a mode, rather than sprinkling.  For example, consider John the Baptist baptizing in the Jordan River.  We read in John 3:22 and 23,

After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized.  Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized.

Why did John baptize in Aenon?  “Because there was much water there.”  This setting for baptism is consistent with the need to immerse his subjects.  If John were baptizing by sprinkling, much water would not be necessary; he would not have needed to baptize in the Jordan River.
          Consider also the occasion when Philip baptized the Ethiopian Eunuch.  We read in Acts 8 of Philip preaching the gospel to the Ethiopian Eunuch.  The Ethiopian had come to Christ in faith.  We then read beginning with verse 36:

Now as they went down the road, they came to some water.  And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”  Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.”  And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”  So he commanded the chariot to stand still.  And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.  Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:36-39)

Now which mode of baptism is consistent with the evidence?  They both went down into the water and Philip baptized him.  Is this consistent with the mode of sprinkling, or even pouring?  No, but rather immersion fits the setting.

           Third, baptism by immersion is consistent with the believer’s union and identification with Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection life.  The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 6:1ff,

      What shall we say then?  Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?  Certainly not!  How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?  Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
      For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.  For he who has died has been freed from sin. 

Paul associates the mode of baptism to the believer’s union with Jesus Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection life.  Which mode of baptism portrays burial and resurrection?  Does sprinkling or immersion?  Of course the answer is immersion.  Sprinkling as a mode of baptism may convey the idea of cleansing, but not burial and resurrection.  Only immersion depicts this important aspect of the faith and life of the believer.  The Bible teaches baptism by immersion and immersion only.
          Paul makes the same association between the mode of baptism and Christ’s death and burial in Colossians 2:11 and 12.  There we read,

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 

First of all, take note that Paul speaks of circumcision and baptism in the same context.  This is the only place in the Bible where the two ideas are found in relation with one another in the same passage.  Based on these verses paedobaptists say that New Testament baptism is the replacement of and substitute for Old Testament circumcision.  Because Israelites circumcised their sons when they were eight days old, Christians should baptize their children in infancy.  But see what Paul argues respecting circumcision and baptism.  He does not identify or associate circumcision with baptism, but rather physical circumcision is compared with an inward work of grace that Christ performs in the hearts of His people, a spiritual circumcision “made without hands.”  Furthermore, baptism is associated with Christ’s burial, and so once again we see that the mode of immersion alone fits the association with Christ’s burial; sprinkling as a mode fails to do so.
          A third passage which supports the idea of immersion is 1 Corinthians 10:1-4.  Paul wrote,

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.  For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.

Here Paul associates baptism with the Israelites passing through the Red Sea in the days of the Exodus.  The people had the sea as walls on either side of them as the cloud was above them (cf. Exod. 14:22).  This depicts the Israelites as being immersed with water along with Moses, being identified with him in this “baptism.”  In the same way believers are baptized into Jesus Christ through their own immersion in baptism.
           All of the New Testament evidence points to the mode of immersion as that practiced by the churches of the first century.

            II. The Biblical teaching respecting the subjects of baptism--disciples only

            Many paedobaptists have acknowledged that the Bible never directly commands or illustrates the baptism of infants by sprinkling.  B. B. Warfield, a well-known and respected Reformed, but paedobaptist theologian, wrote these words,

It is true that there is no express command to baptize infants in the New Testament, no express record of the baptism of infants and no passage so stringently implying it that we must infer from them that infants were baptized. If such warrant as this were necessary to justify the usage, we would have to leave it completely unjustified…[6]

          We Baptists are often accused of not being genuinely Reformed because we reject infant baptism, and that by sprinkling.  But we would argue that we are being true to one of the major principles of the reformation, Sola Scriptura.  If a belief or practice is not taught, described, or illustrated in Scripture, it is not to be believed or practiced.  But those who are Reformed but are paedobaptist will acknowledge that the intentional baptizing of non-disciples is never directly commanded or clearly illustrated in the New Testament, yet they say that churches are under obligation to do so.  Who is it that is violating a principle of the Reformation, we, who demand Biblical evidence for the practice, or those who say it is required of us but can give no Scripture to command us to do so?  As Baptists we are bound to the truth of the Scriptures alone as our rule for faith and practice. 
          There was a book written in the 1800’s entitled, “Baptists, Thorough Reformers.”  In this book the author makes his point by citing a little tract written during that time.  It was called, “Mick Healy, the Bible Reader”, published by the American Tract Society.  Here is the thrust of the tract:

Mick had been a strict Roman Catholic for 50 years.  One day he accidentally found a Bible, and commenced reading it.  The more he read, the more he neglected the Romish services.  The priest at length heard of it, and visited Mick, and sought to get the Bible from him.  (Catholics were forbidden to read the Bible before 1963.)  Failing in this, he began to expostulate with him.  He told him he must not read it anymore; and reminding him that he had not been to confession for a long time, he told him he must come and confess, for it is his duty.  Mick held out the Bible to the priest, and said, “Will your reverence please show it to me in the Book.”  Now this is just what we say to all the arguments of the paedobaptists.  They tell us that all Christian parents should have their infant children sprinkled.  We say, “Will please show it to us in the Book.”  They tell us that sprinkling will do us as well as to go “down into the water,” and be “buried with Him in baptism,” and “come up out of the water.”  We say, “Will you please show it to us in the book.”
      After some time, Mick united with a Protestant church, and regularly attended Sunday school.  The children used frequently to gather around him, and put questions to him, to hear his answers:--“Well, Mick, why don’t you now pray to the Virgin Mary?”  “Because it is not in the Book.”  :Why don’t you confess your sins to Peter and Paul, Mick?”  “Because it is not in the Book.”  “Why do you believe the Bible to be sufficient to make you wise unto salvation, without tradition?”  “Oh, sure, it is all in the Book.”  “Must everything in religion be proved by the Bible, Mick?”  “Yes; whatever is not so, is only moonshine.”  Now our paedobaptist friends ask us why we do not sprinkle infants; we reply, “It is not in the Book.”  They wish to know why we “go down into the water,” and immerse those who believe, and “come up out of the water.”  We reply, with Mick, “Oh, sure, it is all in the Book.”  They ask why we do not admit to the Lord’s table with us those who are unbaptized.”  We reply, “Because it is not in the Book; and whatever is not in the Book is moonshine.”  We aim to be Bible Christians, and to make our churches Bible churches.  In upholding Baptist sentiments, we simply aim to perpetuate primitive Christianity.[7] 

As one once wrote, so we say,

Show us an instance of the baptism of an infant in the primitive churches, and we will then baptize infants.  But until you do, we will oppose infant sprinkling as an innovation of man, having no divine authority, and therefore sinful, when performed in the name of Jehovah.[8]

           Let us consider the Baptist arguments for the baptism of believers only.  First, the Bible contains clear commands to baptize believers but no command to baptize infants.  Consider these passages:  Matthew 28:18f reads,

Then Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’  Amen.”

Here we see a direct and positive command of our Lord to baptize disciples, and them only.  If it were the will of God for churches to baptize disciples and their children, would not our Lord have commanded it here?  But there is no hint or suggestion of such a practice.  We see this also in Mark 16:15f.

And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

In this command of our Lord what is implied is that faith preceded baptism.  Before we baptize, we look for faith, for evidence of faith in Jesus Christ.
          Consider also that John the Baptist refused to baptize anyone until evidence of repentance was demonstrated.  Repentance, of course, is an act and evidence of faith.  We read in Matthew 3:1-12:

      In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”  3For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:

      The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
      “Prepare the way of the Lord,
      Make His paths straight.”

      And John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him.  and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. 
      But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers!  Who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’  For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

John refused to baptize those until they manifested repentance from sin.  Now we would acknowledge that John’s baptism preceded Christian baptism, but the same principle abides.  As John refused to baptize unrepentant people, so we refuse to baptize any but those who have repented of their sins.  Infants being unable to repent are not to be baptized.

            III.  A summary of further arguments of the Biblical teaching of baptism of disciples by immersion only

1.  In the New Testament there is a clear command to baptize believers but no command to baptize infants.

2.  The Scriptural order is always believe and then be baptized.  Every baptism recorded in the New Testament is of this nature.

Acts 8:36-38.  “Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water.  What hinders me from being baptized?’  Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’  And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’  So he commanded the chariot to stand still.  And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.”

Acts 10:44-48.  “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word.  And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.  For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.  Then Peter answered, ‘Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’  And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.  Then they asked him to stay a few days.”

Acts 16:15f.  “Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God.  The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.  And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ And she constrained us.”

Acts 16:30-34.  “And he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’  So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.  And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes.  And immediately he and all his family were baptized.  Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.

Acts 18:8.  “Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household.  And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and they were baptized.”

3.  Baptism is the initiatory rite into a believing community; the church; therefore, it should only be done to believers.  (We made this argument last week, which you can see your notes.)

4.  When all the passages that speak of household baptism are taken into view, two significant conclusions can be reached.  One, the descriptions given of households never mention an infant and show that a household does not necessarily include infants.  Two, every description of baptized households gives compelling evidence that all the baptized people exhibited personal faith before they were baptized.  They were instructed, they feared God, they rejoiced, they served.


[1] Etymology is the study of the history of words, how their form and meaning have changed over time.

[2] Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived and wrote in the first century.

[3] Fred A. Malone, The Baptism of Disciples Alone (Founders Press, Cape Coral, Fl, 2007), p. 209.

[4] For example, consider Malone’s response to John Murray and Duane Spencer in the above book, pp. 211ff.

[5] Why was the word transliterated from Greek into English as “baptize” rather than “immerse”?  The translators of the English Bibles believed in the practice of sprinkling and to translate the word would conflict with their convictions, so they transliterated the word rather than translated it into English. 

[6] Warfield went on to justify the practice, nevertheless.  The quote continued reads, “But the lack of this express warrant is something far short of forbidding the rite; and if the continuity of the church through all ages can be made good, the warrant for infant baptism is not to be sought in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament where the church was instituted and nothing short of an actual forbidding of it in the New Testament would warrant our omitting it now.”

[7] John Quincy Adams (named after the president), Baptists, Thorough Reformers (Backus Books, 1980, orig. 1876), pp. 162-165.

[8] Ibid., p. 162.