By Israel Steinmetz

Water baptism has been consistently practiced by the Church throughout the entire history of the Christian faith. It is practiced by the vast majority of those who call themselves Christians—whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox. However, the method, subject, formulas, agent, effect and meaning of baptism have been issues of debate throughout Christian history, particularly since the time of the Protestant Reformation.

If one seeks to understand or explain what baptism means they find themselves perplexed by a host of other questions that influence—to varying degrees—their answer to the question. In this two-part series we will explore six primary proposed meanings of baptism and how the questions regarding method, subject, and effect of baptism influence our understanding of those meanings.

In part one we examined; a picture of washing and purification from the taint of sin, forgiveness of sins and new birth, and promise of the Holy Spirit. Now we will explore the remaining three; participation in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, a covenant sign, and an initiation into Christ’s Body, the Church.


Romans 6:1-5 stands as the primary passage 1 from which the idea is developed that in baptism the individual participates in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 2


From the perspective of an ordinance this is seen as an outward symbol of an inward reality. The baptism itself does not cause the participant to partake in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection; rather because they already have partaken of it through conversion they are simply performing a physical act to symbolize this spiritual communion with Christ. A sacramental view would argue that in the act of baptism one actually shares in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. In either case baptism by immersion would seem the most fitting picture or means of participating in Christ’s saving event as the one being immersed descends into the water (death), remains for a moment (burial), and is raised up out of the water (resurrection). 3 This tri-part symbolism is apparently lacking in the methods of sprinkling and pouring. Thus it could be questioned how appropriate the methods of sprinkling and pouring are for expressing this element of what baptism means.


Furthermore, one could question how it is that an infant could take part in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, something apparently shared in by faith, when they are incapable of having faith? 4 One must also weigh the question of sacrament versus ordinance in relation to this idea. Romans 6:1-5 and Colossians 2:11-13 seem to indicate that it is the process of baptism itself that gives a share in Christ’s salvific event, the language of imagery and symbolism must be inserted into the biblical text. Is the process of baptism simply an outward sign of an inward reality, or does it in fact have a critical share of that inward reality? 5 The question could well extend to obedience to any of Christ’s commands. Is obedience to Christ’s commands beneficial only if the Spirit is at work to renovate and re-create the human spirit or do acts of obedience to Christ based on some other motivation have value in and of themselves? And if the Spirit is at work, transforming the believer and motivating them to be obedient, are the acts of obedience empty symbols of an inward change or are they integral parts of that change? Finally, we should ask ourselves, what does it mean to be partakers of Christ in his death and resurrection life? 6


The passage that is used to support the doctrine that baptism is a covenant sign is Colossians 2:11-12, wherein Paul speaks of a new circumcision that has occurred in the life of the believer, apparently affected by baptism. Many consider this passage to teach that baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of the new covenant community. 7

This view of baptism serves to remind the believer that baptism is no superfluous act or empty symbol. Rather it is a recognizable mark of those who are in covenant with God, just as circumcision was for those under the covenant with Abraham. A covenant in this sense is a sacred agreement carrying powerful and sobering promises and consequences. The one who is baptized enters into the covenant family of God with all of its rights and responsibilities. 8 This passage, perhaps more than any other, has been used to support the practice of infant baptism. If, under the old covenant, babies were not only allowed, but required to be circumcised on the eighth day should we not baptize infants under the new covenant? Both those who embrace and those who oppose infant baptism should evaluate this question carefully as it is the linchpin of the argument for infant baptism. 9 This question also relates to our various understandings of the eternal state of the souls of infants. Our position on infant baptism factors into our discussions of original sin, guilt, and judgment in relation to infants. 10

We are also faced by the important and perplexing question, “What does it mean to be in covenant with God?” Navigating the waters of the new covenant can seem rather difficult in comparison with the highly structured form of the old covenant. Finally, we might ask how well our view of baptism as an ordinance—or a sacrament for that matter—adapts itself to the notion that baptism is the sign of a covenant between God and man. Is there the possibility of a covenant in the absence of this sign? Does the sign itself mark the beginning of the covenant? More pointedly, can the covenant be considered bonafide or “legal” without the sign of the covenant being performed, without the proverbial “cutting of the covenant”? We should let the words of the covenant theologians speak loudly to us on these questions.


Finally we come to the last proposed meaning for baptism. Simply put, it is the idea that in the act of baptism one is initiated into the Body of Christ, the Church. 11 In this view baptism is the entry point into the family of God, whether one sees it as an act necessary and simultaneous to this entry or as a demonstration or testimony that the entry has occurred. 12 Passages that have been used to support this notion include Acts 2:41 and Galatians 3:26-28 as well as the multiple accounts of baptism in the book of Acts which indicate strongly that baptism was the initiatory rite into the Christian community (Acts 8:12389:1816:153318:8, et al).


How are we to understand this act of initiation which most readily finds its parallels in today’s world in college fraternities and in the ancient world in the mystery religions and the baptism of Jewish proselytes? Does baptism guarantee a place in God’s family or is further obedience required? 13 Is the act of baptism primarily the church’s statement that an individual is part of God’s family (in which case infant baptism may be appropriate) or is it more properly seen as that individual’s statement that he or she is a part of God’s family (in which case believer’s baptism would be preferred)? 14 Is a person a member of the Body of Christ before they are baptized or do they only become a member when they undergo the initiation? More pointedly, are any of the rights or responsibilities of membership withheld from those who by necessity or choice abstain from baptism? For those who baptize infants does the infant become a member of the Body of Christ with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities associated with that membership or must they undergo further initiation before receiving the full benefits of being a member of Christ’s body (e.g. receiving the Eucharist)? 15 This question has also been raised among the Mennonite Brethren where some churches allow church membership for those who have been baptized by sprinkling or pouring, but require baptism by immersion to be involved in ministry. One might ask, as Abram Konrad does in his insightful article, how, on biblical grounds, we could possibly distinguish between a baptism that initiates one into the Body of Christ and one that is required for ministry involvement? 16


This brings us to a larger question that must be faced by the entire Church, not just the Mennonite Brethren. How are we to deal with those who have been baptized by a method other than the one preferred by our denomination or personal belief system? 17

Suppose a person who was baptized by pouring as a believing adult wanted to join a church that practiced believer’s baptism by immersion. Ought this person be required to once again undergo their initiation into the Body of Christ in order to accommodate the practice of that church? Perhaps more difficult is the case of the one who is baptized by sprinkling as an infant and ascends through the required rituals of the church (whether Protestant or Catholic). Supposing they have a genuine and personal experience of faith similar to that of their immersing or pouring brethren should they be required to undergo a new form of baptism in order to be accepted into the fellowship? 18 The crucial question to be faced is simply this, if baptism is the initiatory act by which one enters the Body of Christ then how must baptism be defined in order to genuinely fulfill the requirements of this initiation? And if the answer to this question leaves freedom regarding questions of subject, agent, method, etc. then should those differences ever be used to discriminate between that person and anyone else within the Body of Christ? 19


It has been our intent to provide the reader with stimulating questions that cause them to reevaluate their understanding of baptism in order to aid them in a process of integrating the fullness of biblical teaching on the subject into their baptismal paradigm. The questions presented herein do not have easy or simple answers for the one who is thoughtful and humble enough to read across a wide spectrum of understanding on the subject. 20 However, by exposing ourselves to the understanding of baptism held by others within the Christian faith community we can come to a fuller appreciation of all that baptism means. If in fact baptism does relate in important ways to washing and purification from the taint of sin, forgiveness of sins and new birth, the promise of the Holy Spirit, participation in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, a covenant sign, and initiation into Christ’s Body, then it is a topic about which we should be very well informed so that we can experience and appreciate its rich meaning and benefits. We do ourselves an injustice if we remain locked in a prison of dogmatism where the limited explanation of our denominational heritage is the only view that we entertain.




  1. See also Colossians 2:11-13 ↩
  2. For a summary of the different views concerning the believer’s participation in this process see Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed., Ned B. Stonehouse, F.F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 1996), 361-365. ↩
  3. “Immersion most clearly depicts what the ordinance of baptism is meant to signify, namely, the death and resurrection of Jesus and the believer’s union with Christ…Submersion in water appropriately indicates death. And the bursting forth out of the watery grace illustrates resurrection life,” Stanley J. Grenz, Theology For the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 1994), 531. ↩
  4. Although those who practice infant baptism would rely upon community or proxy faith (Catholics) or the potential or unconscious faith of the infant (some Lutherans). See Grenz, 528-529 for a brief discussion. ↩
  5. Moo argues that Romans 6:1-5 does not speak of symbolism at all, but that the word “baptism” is used to express the entire conversion experience. Therefore, the passage should be understood to mean that the individual truly shares in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, not symbolically, but spiritually and actually, and that this sharing happens in and through their conversion, of which baptism is an integral part. While his primary thesis—that baptism is here used in reference to the entire conversion experience—does not seem adequately supported his conclusions regarding the actual participation of believers in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are quite compelling and deserve our attention (Moo, 363-367). ↩
  6. For instance, Davis does well to remind us that, “Already here and now, through our baptism, we begin to live a transfigured life of grace, even though that life will find its full expansion and manifestation only after our individual deaths and the death of the human world. It is a misunderstanding of the symbolism of the resurrection to suppose that it occurs only at the last day.” Peter H. Davids, The first epistle of Peter, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed., Ned B. Stonehouse, F.F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 1990), 165. ↩
  7. Herbert Lockyer, Sr. ed., Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Baptism,” (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986), 132-133. ↩
  8. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Children of Promise (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 1979), 38-51. ↩
  9. While support is also drawn from Jesus’ admonition to let the children come and be blessed by him (Mark 10:13-16, et al) and the “household” baptisms that occurred in the book of Acts (Acts 16:1533, et al) this understanding of baptism as the new covenant sign is the most direct and explicit teaching that supports the notion of infant baptism. ↩
  10. See Lockyer, 132-133 for a discussion of some of the issues. ↩
  11. “Baptism is not a private experience; it receives its significance as a public act…Baptism is a church ordinance; it is not a religious rite that one performs alone or independently.” Abram G. Konrad, “Baptism: Method or Meaning?,” Direction 14.1, Spring 1985: 6-9.  Database online: ATLA Serials [24 July 2006], 6-7. ↩
  12. Grenz suggests that, “Above all…baptism is oriented toward our participation in community,” (Grenz, 523). ↩
  13. See Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed., Ned B. Stonehouse, F.F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 1987), 441-443 for the proposal that Paul’s teachings regarding the Israelites baptism in the cloud and the sea in 1 Corinthians 10 should serve as a warning against placing too much trust in the performance of a sacrament apart from living a holy life. ↩
  14. For a brief discussion of the problem see Grenz, 527-529. Konrad represents the believer’s baptist view from a Mennonite Brethren perspective when he writes, “Baptism signifies an inner experience of faith in Jesus as the Christ; it is a public demonstration of a commitment to follow Jesus as Lord within the community of other believers…To be baptized implies that the individual affirms faith in Jesus,” (Konrad, 6-7). ↩
  15. This is not an issue in the Eastern Orthodox Church but is in the Roman Catholic and certain Protestant churches (Grenz, 528-529). ↩
  16. Konrad, 8-9. ↩
  17. Konrad’s entire article is well worth reading for insight along these lines. ↩
  18. It is understood that infant sprinkling is more than simply a different method than believer’s immersion or pouring. It is essentially different in terms of the subject as well. Thus the phrase, “a new form of baptism” refers both to differences in method and subject. ↩
  19. “What is certain is that our common incorporation into the Body of Christ is not to be identified with the unity of a single organized institution…The archetypal symbolism of baptism allows it to express a unity deeper than that of an institutional organization. The visible unity of Christians should be interpreted as a communion of mutual recognition and interaction, not as the structural unity of an organized social body,” (Davis, 169). While these comments certainly bear our attention, it should be noted that by the end of Davis’ article he is endorsing a level of ecumenicism that is simply not supported by the Bible; the inclusion of other faiths into God’s redemptive plan (Davis, 171). ↩
  20. As an introduction to the issues I recommend the excellent article on baptism in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1: A-D, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 1979), 410-425 which presents the biblical data on baptism and then the interpretation of it from Baptist, Reformed and Lutheran perspectives. ↩