Akin and Allen lament Southern Baptist churches forsaking baptism by immersion

“Few doctrines are more central to the life and identity of the people of God than baptism,” declared Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Daniel L. Akin in his exegetical and theological treatise on Romans 6 at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s second conference in its Baptist Distinctives Series, Sept 29-30.

The conference was titled “Maintaining the Integrity of a Local Church in a Seeker- Sensitive World: The Baptist Perspective on Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Church Discipline.”

Akin said baptism inaugurated the public ministry of Jesus, citing Matthew 3:13-17, and is at the heart of the Great Commission, citing Matthew 28:16-20. From the book of Acts, Akin directed readers to multiple references indicating believers in Jesus were baptized immediately, even if a church was not gathered.

“The New Testament has no category for a believer in Jesus Christ who has not been baptized,” Akin declared.

Early Baptist confessions further establish the historical precedence for believer’s baptism, Akin said, turning first to the record of Anabaptists, forefathers of Southern Baptists. Balthasar Hübmaier spoke to it in 1524 as his eighth proposition in “Eighteen Dissertations Concerning the Entire Christian Life and of What It Consists.” Michael Sattler listed it as the first of the seven articles of the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, Akin said.

“One will look in vain to find a major Baptist confession that does not include the doctrine of baptism,” he said, adding that the discussion most often revolves around the proper candidate, a believer, and the proper mode, immersion, though the meaning of baptism needs more attention, he said, making that the focus of his address.

Recent developments at the International Mission Board, within several Southern Baptist congregations and by prominent pastors influencing many SBC congregations point to the need of further study, he said.

—discussion at the IMB over the importance of who administers baptism, and the necessity of the baptizing church holding to eternal security of believers.

—discussions, now on hold, at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, pastored by John Piper, and Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond, Okla., where leaders considered allowing professed Christians not baptized by immersion to become members—a practice taught in years past by John Bunyan and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

More recently, Akin said, this view has been taught by former Southern Baptist Andy Stanley, that all that matters is that at the “time” of one’s baptism, “that you were a believer. Neither mode, administrator, or location is of any consequence,” Akin said, quoting from a Feb. 26 sermon by Stanley called “Baptism—What’s the Big Deal?” Akin said Stanley at one point misrepresents the word baptize as meaning “washed,” despite the nearly universal recognition that immersion or “to plunge under” is its primary meaning.

“This may explain why, in part, he is not worried about how and where but when you are baptized,” Akin remarked, restating Stanley’s comment, “Hence, ‘I don’t think [immersion] is such a big deal.’” 

Akin acknowledged that the idea of “washing” is not completely foreign to baptism biblically and historically, pointing to Ephesians 5:26 and Titus 3:5 as conveying the idea while the catechism of Baptists James P. Boyce and John Broadus refer to that significance. However, the rest of his paper offers convincing proof of immersion as the biblical mode, fully explaining its significance. Stanley contends that baptism simply needs to be public and identify with Jesus, Akin said.

From Romans 6:1-14, Akin examined Paul’s continued development of the doctrine of justification and its relationship to sanctification where the apostle addresses baptism, relating the significance of identification and union with Christ. Looking back to the context of Romans 5:12-21, Akin presented what he said were seven vital and necessary implications for a Bible doctrine of baptism orbiting around Romans 6.

—1. Baptism signifies that we are now identified with the Man of life, not the man of death. Paul has just drawn the remarkable contrast between the Man of life, Jesus Christ, and the man of death, Adam (Romans 5:12-21).

The one to whom you belong counts for everything, Akin said, borrowing from G.R. Beasley-Murray the observations that in Romans 5 Jesus is seen as our substitute, which paves the way for Jesus as our representative in the next chapter. 

“It is this transfer of our identification that our baptism gives witness. Such a radical break with our past requires a bold declaration of our transfer of allegiance.”

—2. Baptism means we can no longer continue delighting in sin, because we are now dead to sin (Romans 6:1-2). 

Akin said the gospel of grace does not empower sin, it executes sin, referring to the eternal life gained through Christ, according to Romans 5:21 that “has as one of its results a death, a termination with the previous life, the life of sin.”

—3. Baptism most clearly identifies us with Christ in his death (Romans 6:3).  Pointing to the heart of Paul’s argument concerning the blessings of baptism, Akin said arguments over whether Paul has in mind Spirit baptism or water baptism are unnecessary because the apostle never would have thought to separate the two. 

He made several observations that concern numerous aspects of biblical baptism:

 —There is a knowledge component to baptism, something that is problematic for those who baptize infants, and especially for the infant, who cannot know the meaning of baptism;

—Paul assumes that the Roman believers to whom he is writing have been baptized;

—“‘Baptized in Christ Jesus’ means immersion into Christ, affirming my full union and identification with the one in whom I now exist and have my very being”;

—It is an immersion “into his death,” making death to sin decisive and climactic, with no need of repeating the act;

—“Baptism into Christ has implications for where I am baptized and by whom I am baptized,” Akin said, noting those who are baptized into Christ now identify with both Christ as their head and also his body. Thus, such identification should be public, witnessed by the local visible body of believers.

While the focus of Romans 6 is on incorporation into Christ, not the church, Akin said, “Still, the trajectory of the text would point to baptism being administered by the visible body of Christ as normative. Missionary expansion and accompanying baptisms like those found in the book of Acts should not be viewed as the pattern once local churches are established. To follow any other model is to introduce a disconnect of the believer from the head and body with whom he or she now identifies.”

—4. Baptism further identifies us with Christ in his resurrected life (Romans 6:4-5).

“Emerging from the waters of death, I now testify and give witness publicly of the resurrection life I now share in union with Christ,” Akin said. Both the 1859 Abstract of Principles and 2000 Baptist Faith & Message emphasize this important truth, he noted.

—5. Baptism affirms that we are no longer enslaved to sin, for that man is now dead (Romans 6:6-7).

Akin said, “Formerly a slave to an evil and wicked master, death by baptism unto resurrection life has freed me from the tyranny,” a belief confessed through baptism.

—6. Baptism reflects an eschatological confidence that the life I have in Christ is a life that will never end (Romans 6:8-10).  “I confess in baptism my confidence of a future resurrection, the kind of life which I have already begun to enjoy,” he declared.

—7. Baptism is the basis for my daily mortification of the flesh (Romans 6:11-14). “My baptism will serve as a reminder, a memorial if you like, to inspire and motivate me in my pursuit of this righteous life,” he added.

THE MODE MATTER

David L. Allen, Southwestern’s theology dean, narrowed his focus to the proper mode of baptism in his message “Dipped for Dead,” borrowing a phrase from a 1614 defense by Leonard Busher.

Stating twin pillars of truth regarding Baptists and baptism, Allen said immersion is the only biblical and thus proper mode of baptism and without immersion there is no biblical baptism.

“It is the height of irony that while some with paedobaptist churches are pushing for a recognition and renewal of baptism by immersion, some Baptists are questioning whether baptism by immersion really should be required of all believers.” 

Allen offered detailed linguistic evidence to support his argument for immersion.  Referring to the obvious meaning of the Greek term “baptizo,” Allen said, “The word means what it means, and nothing short of bias, cowardice or even misrepresentation can explain why the word is not translated ‘immerse.’” 

“Since even paedobaptists are agreed that the apostolic practice was immersion, how and why did a change take place in the early church?” Allen asked. 

First, affusion, or sprinkling, was permitted under extraordinary circumstances if immersion could not be used. But later, the false doctrine of baptismal regeneration prompted a change in the significance of baptism, Allen explained, giving rise to the practice of infant baptism. 

“Even archaeological evidence indicates baptism was performed by immersion at the very earliest time of Christian history,” Allen said. “Evidence of this mode has been discovered in churches, sculpture and art from the earliest days to the end of the Middle Ages.”

For theological evidence of immersion, Allen said the two bedrock passages are Romans 6:3-5 and Colossians 2:12. 

“Baptism is more than a bath, it is a burial, and only immersion can symbolize burial,” Allen argued. “The Christian’s descending into the tomb (buried with Christ) requires a corresponding ascending (rising with Christ),” he continued, referring to both passages.

“If baptism has to do with death, burial and resurrection, does it not logically follow that immersion of a believer is an essential component of the rite of baptism?” he asked.  “In fact, without immersion and without a believer, is there really any baptism in the New Testament sense of the term?”

Allen recalled a day when Anabaptist and Baptist forefathers were mistreated, imprisoned, tortured and murdered by Catholics and Protestants over their insistence on believer’s baptism by immersion.

“I wonder if we modern-day Southern Baptists will follow our forefathers to so radical a conclusion.”

Contrary to the New Testament, Allen said some Baptist pastors are willing to lead their churches to relax the necessity of baptism by immersion as necessary for membership in the local church.

Among the misguided reasons Allen cited for such a move are:

—appeasing our paedobaptist friends;

—fostering church growth by making it easier for some people to join Baptist churches;

—allowing Reformed soteriology to blur Baptist ecclesiology.

When such justifications are used, Allen fears Southern Baptists will not have the stomach for upholding the biblical mode of immersion. 

“The indications that many Southern Baptists have lost touch with what it means to be Baptist are evident.” However, he answered, “Under no circumstances and for no reasons should Southern Baptists abandon their convictions about what the Scriptures teach on the subject of baptism.”

Allen closed by quoting Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s instruction:

“‘If I thought it wrong to be a Baptist, I should give it up and become what I believed to be right … if we could find infant baptism in the word of God, we would adopt it. It would help us out of a great difficulty, for it would take away from us that reproach which is attached to us—that we are odd and do not as other people do. But we have looked well through the Bible and cannot find it, and do not believe it is there; nor do we believe that others can find infant baptism in the Scriptures, unless they themselves first put it there.’”

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Copyright 2006 "The Southern Baptist Texan"

Reprinted with permission

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