By Pastor Stephen Rees,
This statement is produced for the benefit of evangelical Christians
wishing to worship with us but coming from church backgrounds where a
'baptist' view of the church is not taught. We hope that this
statement will help you to understand our position and the biblical
basis for our views.
Many Christians are puzzled when they first come into contact with
reformed baptist churches. They are frequently attracted by the
emphasis on an expository teaching ministry and by the reality of
caring fellowship. They are impressed by the simplicity of the worship
and by the evangelistic concern that marks many such churches. But
they cannot understand the importance that such churches give to
believers' baptism, and to church membership.
Like the majority of reformed baptist churches we restrict our formal
membership to baptised believers. Moreover, we teach that only those
who have been baptised as believers should normally be admitted to the
Lord's supper (the 'communion service'). Both these positions
frequently cause bewilderment among Christians from different
backgrounds. They have been taught that all believers are members of
the Church and that the Lord's table is open to 'all who love the
Lord'. Moreover, in many cases, they were themselves 'baptised' as
infants and cannot understand why we should insist that only
believers' baptism is valid. It seems to them a horribly narrow and
restrictive position to refuse church membership to true Christians
just because they have not been through a particular outward ceremony.
It appears to them that baptism (or rather, a particular view of
baptism) is being made more important than the new birth itself. Does
it really matter, after all, whether your baptism occurred before or
after you were converted?
Well - of course baptism is not as important as the new birth. There will
be people in heaven who were neither baptised as infants nor as
believers but who trusted in Christ and were saved. But that is not
really the issue. The real issue is 'What does the Bible teach about
the organisation of the local church and about baptism?' We know that
there will be people in the company of the elect who were never
baptised. But that does not tell us what commands God has given for
the discipline and structuring of the local church. If we take what
seems to be a 'narrow' and extreme position, it is not because we have
set ourselves up as some superior group with the right to pass
judgement on other Christians and to hold ourselves aloof from them -
it is simply that we want to make sure that the church to which we
belong, as far as possible, should be reformed and brought into line
with what we see to be the biblical pattern.
So, what does the Bible teach about these things?
We shall present the Bible's teaching in a series of propositions.
1) It was
taken for granted in the New Testament church that all believers would
Whenever we read in the New Testament of people becoming Christians they
are immediately baptised (ie immersed in water: the normal implication
of the Greek word 'baptizo'). You will find this in a host of
passages, for example, Acts ch.2 vs.41 - "Those who accepted his
message were baptised and about three thousand were added to their
number that day."
Acts 8: 12 - "When they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom
and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women."
(You might also look at Acts
Acts 10: 42-48; Acts 16: 29-33; Acts
19: 4-5.) In all these passages it is quite clear that as soon as a
person became a Christian he was baptised. There is no hint that
baptism was seen as an optional extra for those Christians who wanted
to go on to a second stage in Christian experience: it was simply
taken for granted that baptism in water would be the outward sign that
marked their conversion and entry into the Christian life.
So much was this so that again and again the New Testament preachers made
the call to be baptised part of their gospel proclamation. Acts
2: 37-38 - "When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to
Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?' Peter
replied, 'Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of
Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive
the gift of the Holy Spirit.' ". Acts
22: 14-16 - "The
God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the
righteous One and to hear words from his mouth.. And now what are you
waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on
his name." The New Testament preachers knew that salvation came by
faith alone and that baptism in itself could not save anyone but they
also made it clear that the appointed way for saving faith to be
expressed was in baptism. So important did they see this to be that
(as in the last two passages quoted) they spoke as if baptism itself
was necessary for salvation. Whenever anyone surrendered himself to
the saving power of Jesus Christ, seeking cleansing from sin, he was
taught that the outward way of expressing this was by surrendering
himself to others to be baptised and washed outwardly. The idea that a
person could claim to be coming to Christ but refuse to be baptised
would never have occurred to the apostolic churches: it was taught
that baptism was the outward sign that a man or woman was becoming a
Christian by inward faith and repentance.
The writers of the New Testament epistles can therefore take it for
granted that their readers will have been baptised. They talk of
baptism as the time when their readers first experienced the blessings
of salvation: see for example, Romans 6: 1-10; Galatians 3: 26-27. (We
will be looking at these and other passages from the epistles later.)
There then is our first contention. In the early church, all who were
converted were immediately baptised. The idea of an unbaptised
Christian simply does not arise in the New Testament. But now for a
2) It was
taken for granted in the New Testament church that only believers
would be baptised.
This statement, we admit, runs completely contrary to the teaching of
many denominations that babies should be baptised although they show
no sign of repentance and faith. We respect the sincerity of those who
do teach the baptism of infants but believe nonetheless that the New
Testament clearly supports our position.
We can show this in three ways. Firstly, we should consider the commands
of the New Testament. Quite simply, there is no command anywhere in
the New Testament to baptise anyone other than repentant sinners who
are willing to be saved through Jesus Christ. The great evangelistic
command is quite explicit: "Go and make disciples of all nations,
baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the
Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded
you." (Matt. 28: 19-20).
According to this passage the people who are to be baptised are
disciples. Having been baptised they are expected to walk in Christian
obedience. There is no idea here that anyone except believers should
The second line of evidence is found in the examples given in the New
Testament. Again, the point is very simple. There is no example
anywhere in the New Testament church of anyone other than believers
being baptised. We have looked at many examples of baptism in the New
Testament. In every case it is believers who are baptised. We do have
examples of households being baptised together but even in these cases
it is clear that those who were baptised were individually believers.
So for example, the Philippian jailer's whole family is baptised (Acts
16: 31). But before this we read that Paul and Silas "spoke the word to him and
to all the others in his house" (vs 32). Again we're told (vs 34):
"the whole family was filled with joy because they had come to believe
in God". Those who were baptised had listened to the preaching of the
word and had come to believe. Again, Paul tells us that he baptised
the household of Stephanas (1 Cor.
1: 16). But in
the same letter he tells us that "the household of Stephanas were the
first converts in Achaia and they have devoted themselves to the
service of the saints." (1 Cor.16: 15). We read again in Acts 18: 8
that "Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue believed in the Lord,
together with all his household". Such passages as these may lead us
to believe that the Lord will often be at work to save whole families
but they say nothing about the baptism of infants who have never shown
evidence of repentance or faith.
The third line of evidence is perhaps the most important. It is drawn
from the teaching of the New Testament letters. Again the essential
point is very simple. In several places the New Testament letters
explain the purpose and the meaning of baptism. What they say simply
does not fit or even make sense when applied to the baptism of
infants. (Even theologians such as William Cunningham who insist
strongly on the validity of infant baptism have to admit this.) We
referred earlier to Romans 6: 1-10:vs 3: "Don't you know that all of
us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death so that
just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the
Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him in
his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his
resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so
that the body of sin might be made powerless, that we should no longer
be slaves to sin - for anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
Now if we died with Christ we believe that we shall also live with
This is not an easy passage to understand in all its details but its
central thrust is clear. Paul addresses 'all of us who were baptised..'
He then goes on to say what the consequences of that baptism have
been. We can list them out:
a) All who have been baptised have been baptised into Christ - that is to
say, they have been united with Christ and have become members of his
b) All who have been baptised have been baptised into his death - that is
to say, they have come to share the benefits purchased by his death.
c) All who have been baptised can confidently expect 'to be united with
him (Christ) in his resurrection.'
d) All who have been baptised have been crucified with him, and thus have
been freed (justified) from sin.
Now all of these statements make perfect sense if 'all who have been
baptised' are believers. But they make no sense at all if they include
babies and children who have not come to faith. We have said that we
are writing for the benefit of evangelical Christians: we assume
therefore, that you share the evangelical conviction that only true
believers enjoy the blessings listed above. If however, it is right to
baptise babies, then we must say that those babies, once baptised
enjoy all these blessings.
There are some who are not afraid to say that. They will say quite
frankly that all baptised babies have indeed been born again and
justified, though many will never show any signs of repentance or
faith in later life. That view seems to us to be flatly against the
New Testament teaching that without faith no-one can be saved.
Everywhere the New Testament teaches that no external ceremony can
Other Christians however, take a subtler position. They say that though
not all who were baptised as babies are actually saved, they should
all be regarded and treated as if they were. Again however, this
simply does not fit the Bible evidence. Paul does not say that all who
have been baptised should be treated as if they were 'in Christ': he
assures all his baptised readers that they are actually in Christ.
Paul's words can only make sense if those to whom he is writing are
believers. Paul could not have written as he did if he knew that many
of those who had been baptised had not professed individually
repentance or faith.
This passage is not unique. The same view of the meaning of baptism is
taught wherever the subject is discussed in the New Testament letters.
Gal 3: 26-27: "Ye are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for
all of you who were baptised into Christ have been clothed with
In this passage again, Paul speaks of 'all who were baptised'. Again he
teaches that they were 'baptised into Christ', and that from that time
they 'have been clothed with Christ'. Again, we must ask, 'Is this
true of babies?' Do we believe that when a baby is baptised, he is
united with Christ and clothed in Christ's righteousness?
We must say again: The language which Paul uses only makes sense if he is
writing of believers. Peter's teaching too (1 Peter
3: 21) is just as impossible to reconcile with infant baptism:
"..this water (the water of the flood) symbolises baptism that now saves
you also - not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a
good conscience towards God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus
Baptism saves you.. If babies are to be baptised, then we must say that
baptism actually saves them. But very many who are baptised as babies
are not saved. Again, the passage simply makes no sense unless baptism
is seen as going hand in hand with faith. All who are baptised because
they are truly repentant and believing are indeed "saved by the
resurrection of Jesus Christ" and do have "the pledge of a good
conscience towards God".
No: however hard we search, we find no command in the New Testament to
baptise anyone but believers. We find no examples to show that the New
Testament church baptised anyone who did not profess repentance and
faith. We find that all the teaching of the New Testament about the
meaning of baptism assumes that those who are baptised are true
believers. Those who attempt to justify the baptism of babies can take
no encouragement from the clear statements of the New Testament.
Everywhere, the New Testament speaks of the baptism of believers and
only of believers.
We come then to our third proposition:
churches of the New Testament were composed of baptised believers and
only they enjoyed the privileges of church membership.
This of course, is the obvious consequence of all we have considered. The
New Testament churches were churches of believers - very often Paul's
letters begins with a greeting in which he speaks directly of the
members of the various churches as elect, faithful, saints, in Christ
Jesus. But we have seen that the New Testament knows nothing of
believers who are not baptised. In the passages we have looked at from
the epistles, Paul and Peter simply assume that without exception
their readers have been baptised.
We can find a clear example of the pattern of the New Testament church in
Acts 2: 41-42: "Those who accepted his message were baptised and
about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted
themselves to the apostles' teaching, to the fellowship, to the
breaking of bread and to prayer.." It is clear that only those who
accepted the message of the gospel and were baptised were added to the
company of the church and admitted to its privileges.
Again, there is simply no suggestion anywhere in the New Testament that
anyone but baptised believers were admitted into the fellowship of the
church. We have seen that no-one was regarded as being saved until he
had professed faith through baptism.
All the privileges of church membership and especially participation in
the breaking of bread were reserved for those who had come to faith
and baptism. Paul in 1 Cor. 10:16-17 argues that those who eat
together of the one loaf at the Lord's supper do so because they are
already one body, united in Christ. "Because there is one loaf, we who
are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf".
Clearly Paul did not expect that those who had never been added to the
church, the body of Christ, would be eating at the Lord's table. But
we have seen that for Paul, it is through faith expressed in baptism
that we are united with Christ in his body. The Lord's table is for
believers - and in the New Testament churches no-one was regarded as a
believer who had not been 'baptised into Christ'.
So far then we have considered three key principles giving us a clear
picture of how the New Testament church functioned. They offer us a
clear pattern for the 'ideal church'. The local church is to be a
fellowship of those who have believed the gospel, have been baptised
and added to the church, and only then have begun to enjoy the
privileges of church membership. They will of course bring their
children with them, and their children will have a special and
privileged place in the fellowship. But only when their children have
themselves come to respond to the gospel will they be baptised and
admitted to the Lord's table. These are the ideals for which, as a
church, we are aiming.
If all other evangelical churches and individuals had the same aims and
maintained the same principles, we would have no problem! But things
are not so simple. Clearly, there are many true Christians and
churches who see things very differently. We need therefore to go on
to consider how to deal with the very confused situation that exists
in the present day. We can set out our position on this in two further
4) Those who
are 'baptised' as infants and then are converted, should be 'rebaptised'
This is perhaps the most controversial statement we have made so far.
Yet, it is difficult to see how it can be denied. Everywhere we have
seen that the whole meaning of baptism is that it is an outward
declaration and expression of personal faith. A person who has been
baptised only as a baby (we prefer to say he's been 'christened') has
never been truly baptised at all. He may, of course, have been through
other outward ceremonies (for example, confirmation) since he was
converted. But he has never undergone the one ceremony which God
ordained to be the outward expression of faith.
Baptism is uniquely suitable to be the sign or expression of gospel
faith. A man does not baptise himself: he is baptised. In baptism, he
trusts himself into the hands of others and thus expresses outwardly
the fact that he is willing to trust himself into the hands of Jesus
Christ. He trusts himself to others for physical cleansing, expressing
the fact that he is trusting himself to Christ for the cleansing of
his soul. He acknowledges the fact that he cannot cleanse himself: he
must trust another to do it all.
A further truth, however, is also symbolised in believers' baptism. In
the passage we looked at earlier (Romans 6) Paul teaches that when a
man is immersed - buried - in water (the word baptise simply means dip
or immerse) what is shown is that his old life under the penalty and
power of sin is at an end - he has died with Christ and shares all the
benefits purchased by Christ's death. When he 'rises again' from the
water, he expresses the fact that a new life has begun - he shares the
resurrection life of Christ.
There are many ceremonies designed by different groups of Christians to
express outwardly the believer's faith. But none of them is an
adequate substitute for believers' baptism - for none of them in the
same way express the fulness of the gospel message or of our response
to that message.
We cannot, of course, point to any passage in the New Testament that
teaches directly that those baptised as infants should be rebaptised.
The reason for this is simple: the New Testament writers knew nothing
of infant baptism and therefore could not discuss how to deal with it!
But there are a number of passages that may throw light on the
We should remember, firstly, that those to whom Peter preached on the day
of Pentecost, were all Jews who had been circumcised as infants as a
sign that they belonged to God's covenant people. There are those
today who argue that infant baptism has exactly the same significance
- it is a mark that the child henceforth belongs to the covenant
people of God. What is certain is that when these circumcised Jews
heard the gospel and asked, "What shall we do?" (Acts
2: 37) Peter replied, "Repent and be baptised every one of you..". Unlike
infant baptism, the ceremony they had undergone as infants had been
ordained by God but even so when they were converted they had to
receive Christian baptism.
Again, in Acts 19 we read of a group of John the Baptist's disciples. The
baptism they had received from John was again a ceremony truly
ordained by God as an expression of repentance. Yet Paul insisted that
having now been converted, they should be 'rebaptised' as an
expression of their faith in Jesus and their acceptance of the gift of
the Holy Spirit.
To many people, the baptism they received as infants is precious and they
look back on it with gratitude. Some can even testify that it was the
awareness of the baptism they had received that first caused them to
consider the gospel. For such people, it is hard to accept that the
baptism they received was not valid Christian baptism. But the
implication of the two passages we have just considered would seem to
be that no ceremony undergone before conversion can ever be a
substitute for believers' baptism.
5) It is necessary to make provision
for those who have differing views of these matters.
We have sketched out what we believe to be the Bible's teaching on the
matter of baptism and the local church. To us the teaching of the
Bible seems very clear and simple. We find it hard to understand why
there should be any controversy over these matters. Yet it is clear
that there are many faithful evangelical Christians and churches who
having given earnest thought to the subject have come to very
different conclusions. We respect the sincerity of their convictions
and believe that it is necessary to make provision for such people. We
recognise that there is a real distinction to be drawn between those
who simply reject or ignore the teaching of Scripture on these matters
and those who after careful study come to a different understanding of
what the Scripture teaches.
So, for example, while we see no ground biblically to invite to the
Lord's table those who are unattached to any gospel church, we do
believe that it is right to welcome to the Lord's table all those who
are visiting the area who are communicant members of other evangelical
churches - of whatever denomination.
Again, we are aware that there will be those who are unable to find a
suitable local church where the gospel is preached and who will wish
to worship with us regularly although they disagree with us over these
issues and cannot in all conscience submit to 'rebaptism'. We would of
course strongly urge such people to reconsider their view of the
subject, but if ultimately they were unable, in all conscience, to
consent to our standpoint, we would think it right, even so, to invite
them to worship with us at the Lord' table. A system of 'associate
membership' exists for the benefit of such people: associate members
possess all the privileges of full membership apart from the right to
cast a vote at members' meetings.
We are aware, of course, that compromise
arrangements of this sort are less than satisfactory and we look
forward eagerly to the day when all evangelical believers are united
in their understanding of the doctrines of the church. Until then,
however, we see it as our responsibility to seek to build a local
church according to the biblical pattern, while at the same time
continuing to seek to show love and unity towards all gospel
Christians and churches. To seek these two goals simultaneously is no
easy task yet we believe that both are clearly commanded by Scripture.
We hope that this statement will have helped you to understand our
position. Our desire is to "make every effort to keep the unity of the
Spirit in the bond of peace.. speaking the truth in love".
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