Baptism, Vows, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ
May 11, 2022
I have felt for some time now that someone ought to address a misleading idea held by many of the most traditional Amish and Mennonites, and various other sections of the so-called Plain People. It is the idea that Christian baptism involves vows, much like the vows in a Christian marriage. This idea is held widely. It has a strong position in the teaching of many traditional communities and it is not going away soon. This article is my best attempt at explaining why I wish it would.
I was raised in an Old Order home, so I have a personal understanding of traditional thought and practice in these communities. Because of that, I believe I have sufficient knowledge to engage this subject.
Almost without exception, Old Order peoples see both marriage and baptism as a solemn event where sacred vows are made before God and witnesses. I believe the primary reason behind this is found in the traditional ceremonies of these institutions--they are performed in a basically identical pattern. In marriage, there is a prepared number of questions to which the members of the matrimony, the bride and the groom, each make a solemn vow in their turn, according to their question. The traditional baptism, as I've already said, follows an identical pattern. There is a prepared number of questions, and the candidates for baptism individually give an affirmative answer to each question.
In both ceremonies, the bishop is the officiator. He asks the questions. In the case of the wedding, when the vows have been made, he will ask for the right hand of the bride and the groom, take them in his own hand, and marry them. The ceremony is complete. The bride and groom have entered a new relationship, now husband and wife. The church embraces them in this new relationship.
In the baptism ceremony, when the young candidates have all answered the questions, the bishop and deacon begin to pour a small amount of water on the head of each one. When the administering of the water is complete, the candidates are also understood to have entered a new relationship, not unlike the bride and groom. The recipients of the traditional baptism are now officially members of the local church and are embraced as such. They are also thought to have a new relationship with God because they have been obedient to Him in baptism. But, in my experience, it is not very clear what that relationship is. One thing is clear enough, though, even at that time. The new members of the congregation are required to obey all the church rules and regulations from their baptism day forward.
Because of the striking similarities in these two ceremonies, the accepted Old Order teaching today is that baptism is primarily a ceremony of vows. (At least, that is the reason I have concluded.) But I challenge this understanding of baptism. Is Christian baptism a vow to God? To vow means "to make a solemn promise." I think we all agree that baptism is taught in the Bible and that is why Christians baptize. But did the men and women of the Bible see baptism as a time in their lives when they made solemn promises to God?
For a long time I saw baptism in this way. I thought baptism was a promise, just like marriage. Growing up in an Old Order community, I never heard of another definition. But there came a day when I was moved to study the New Testament with gravity and sincerity. It was then, that I saw a different baptism. If you read the entire book of Acts, the story of the apostles and the how they established the church, you will see it, too.
In the New Testament, baptism came about in this way. The gospel of Jesus Christ was preached; many rejected the message, but some believed. And as many persons as believed were baptized. The order of events was always the same. You can see this pattern in the following accounts: Peter preached to the Jews at Jerusalem (Acts 2:41), Philip preached in Samaria (Acts 8:12) and to the Ethiopian (Acts 8:35-38), Peter again preached to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48), Paul preached to Lydia and other women on the bank of a river (Acts 16:14-15), to the Philippian jailer and his household (Acts 16:30-34), and to Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, his house, and many other Corinthians (Acts 18:4-8). Read these scriptures carefully, and notice something. In every account, individuals were baptized for only one reason--they believed. Notice the apostles never asked any of these people to make a promise of any kind.
But what does it mean, they "believed"? Does it simply mean they believed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, as the Ethiopian eunuch tells Philip in his unusual chariot ride (Acts 8:37)? Certainly these early disciples believed that, but that truth alone is not what the Bible is talking about. Remember, the devils themselves believe in God (James 2:19). When Jesus was ministering among the sick and those possessed of devils, the demons knew who He was. They cried out in fear, "Thou art Christ the Son of God!" (Luke 4:41) To know that God is real and to believe Jesus Christ is His Son does not make you a Christian. It does not make you a true believer; otherwise, the demons are going to heaven. No, to believe as the Ethiopian did, as Lydia did, as the jailer and so many others did, means something more.
In the Bible, believing is called faith. From these accounts in the book of Acts, we need to learn an important fact. True faith has a beginning. Some people seem to think they have just always believed. This is not possible, if we are talking about biblical faith. The language of the New Testament clearly sees faith as a distinct event, that moment a true believer looks back to the remainder of his days. The apostle Paul points to a time "when we believed" (Romans 13:11). Again, "after that ye believed" (Eph. 1:13) speaks of a certain time. When the New Testament mentions the disciples of the early church, it does not so much see them as those who believe, but as those who believed. For example, "they which have believed”
(Titus 3:8), "we which have believed"
(Heb. 4:3), "we have believed" (Gal. 2:16), and "I have believed" (2 Tim. 1:12). This does not mean they were no longer believing--of course they were. It only shows they were consciously aware of a day in their lives when they believed for the very first time.
Faith, as we find it in the Bible, is radically different from any other faith that people may have in this world. Biblical faith is unique because it believes "to the saving of the soul" (Heb. 10:39). It is through faith that we are "saved" (Eph. 2:8). The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God "unto salvation" to all who believe it (Romans 1:16). This faith results in salvation. If you think you have true faith in Jesus Christ, but you would not dare to say that your soul is saved, then you have not yet believed. For some, this is an uncomfortable truth, but it is the biblical definition of faith.
When I was a young person in the Old Order Mennonite church, I was aware that many Christians believe you must have a conversion, you must be saved. I knew this from books I read. But I also knew that my church did not see any importance in that idea. If the young people learn the teaching of the church and promise to always obey the church standards, why should anything more be necessary? Maybe a hopeless drunk needs to be saved, but what if you have been taught right ways all your life?
In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul carefully and thoroughly taught his Jewish brethren that "there is no difference" (Romans 3:22) between them and everyone else. "There is none righteous, no, not one..." (Romans 3:10). "[A]ll have sinned..." (Romans 3:23), whether you are a Jew or a Joe Wenger, and the paycheck for sin is always death (Romans 6:23). It is not a matter of a little sin or a lot of sins (James 2:10); God's holy decree has always been, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezekiel 18:20). Because we are sinners, a death sentence awaits us. It does not matter what church you have grown up in or what conservative lifestyle you have chosen. We desperately need to be "saved from wrath" (Romans 5:9); that is, from the wrath of God Himself. The Judge of all the earth has spoken, and we stand condemned.
Why did Christ come into the world? He came to "save sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15)! It is a strange thing to admit you are a sinner, yet say that you do not need to be saved. Jesus said, "They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Mark 2:17). You see, Jesus is rightly called "the Savior." But, if you believe it is not necessary for you to be saved, does that name mean anything to you at all?
The Apostle Paul wrote "...while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). We need to understand the little word "for." The picture of the word is that of a substitute. Jesus died our death. He took our place, and suffered our rightful punishment (Isaiah 53:5-6). He tasted the horrible flavor of death "for every man" (Heb. 2:9) so that everyone who believes in His substitution will never need to taste it (John 8:51-52). When we read 2 Corinthians 5:21, we begin to understand the true nature of Christ dying for us. "...He [God] hath made Him [Christ] to be sin for us, Who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." Here, as in Isaiah 53, we see that God Himself meted out the sentence of sinners on His own beloved Son. Why should the only Man who never sinned receive the "wages of sin" (Romans 6:23)? The Bible answers its own question: "...that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life" and that "the world through Him might be saved" (John 3:16-17).
This is the gospel! When the sinful soul enjoys this truth for the first time, he is made to cry out in wonder like Charles Wesley did, so many years ago:
Amazing love, how can it be?
That Thou my God shouldst die for me!
As you can see, I am much more concerned about what it means to believe than I am about baptism itself. It is not wrong for me to say this. The Apostle Paul wrote, "For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel..." (1 Cor. 1:17). The salvation of sinners does not come about by baptism, but by believing the good news about Jesus Christ. Remember that Jesus, just before He died, promised one of the thieves on a cross next to Him that he would be with Him in paradise. There was no baptism, only faith.
Baptism is not a ritual of obedience that makes you more acceptable to God. Nor is it a promise that the recipient will live a new life; rather, it is a sacred ordinance declaring he has already received new life--from Christ Himself. New Testament baptism is a ceremony of rich symbolism that says we have been buried with Christ in His death and, in the likeness of His resurrection, we are raised to a brand new life (Romans 6:3-5). It is a joyful public expression of the fact that a person has been "delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the kingdom of His dear Son" (Col. 1:13). It should never be administered to anyone who does not have this testimony.
Baptism cannot tie you to a certain church or denomination for the rest of your life. If a church makes their young people promise such a promise, they are abusing the true meaning of baptism. Nor can baptism be associated with a list of church-made rules and regulations. The idea that through baptism we become obligated to follow an "ordnung" is not biblical. The true church, in its beginning, lived by the apostles' doctrine (Acts 2:42). Nowhere did the apostles teach against automobiles, against electricity, rubber tires, mustaches, or passenger jets. As it was in the beginning, so it ought to be today. To the extent which we have foolishly added to their teaching, to that extent we ought to be convicted.
Old Order baptism, as it is traditionally understood, contains at least one more problem. It has to do with the explicit meaning of the word "baptize." Remember, words have meanings. You cannot make a word say anything you choose. To say you are baptizing people with a few ounces of water from a pitcher is like saying you are whitewashing your cellar with black ink.
In Greek (the original language of most of the New Testament), the word for "baptize" literally means "to submerge or immerse." While Philip was preaching in the Ethipotian’s chariot, they "...came unto a certain water" (Acts 8:36). Do you think they drove up to a stone waterpot by the side of the road? No. The text is clear they had just reached a river, or a part of the sea. "And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him" (Acts 8:38).
Everywhere in the Bible, men and women are baptized by submerging them in an adequate supply of water. Where, then, did the idea of sprinkling water on the head come from? I was shocked when I first recognized the origin of this practice. It is a Roman Catholic tradition. The Catholic doctrine of infant baptism involves the priest sprinkling a few drops of water on a baby's head. Somehow the immense power and influence of the Roman magisterium did carry over into the practices of the Reformers, resulting in adults being baptized in just the same fashion as were Roman Catholic infants. I think it is profoundly shameful that hundreds of years after the Anabaptist beginnings, this erroneous practice still continues. Think about what it means. Generation after generation of people have not cared enough about this to make a change and return to the Bible's example. The Roman Catholic idea of wetting the head, along with all other Catholic heresies, must be rejected.
I started this article by saying I believe there is a problem with the idea that baptism involves vows, just like marriage. Using scripture, I explained that biblical baptism is not a vow (or vows) at all. It is a sacred public ceremony for a new believer that testifies of eternal life found in Christ. The word "vow" has no biblical connection with baptism and should not be used in such a way.
There is, however, a biblical word for a person's response to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is confession. "For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation" (Romans 10:10). This vocal expression of faith--a faith born in the heart--is seen everywhere in the Bible. The blind man, who was healed in the pool of Siloam, said simply, "Lord, I believe" (John 9:38). When the doubt of Thomas turned to faith, he uttered, "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28). We find the bold confession of Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). And the tearful trust of Martha, the sister of Lazarus, whose faith did not fail in her greatest grief, "Yea, Lord: I believe that Thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world" (John 11:27).
Before baptizing the eunuch, Philip asked for a confession. "If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest." But he did not require the queen's treasurer to make a vow of any sort. A confession and a vow is not the same thing. To confess means "to declare a certain belief" as a present reality. A vow (or promise) is different in that it declares to do something in the future.
We do not become a disciple of Christ or a sheep of His fold by promising to obey Him for the rest of our days. Yes, to be obedient to the Shepherd is the fervent desire of every healthy member of His flock, but that is not how we are made His. Our obedience is not our entrance into the family of God. If it was, we stand in grave danger, even today! It is not something we do for Him, but what He did for us. "[T]hrough the blood of His cross" (Col. 1:20), the Bible says, this Man paid our deficit of sin forever and ever (Heb. 10:12). We must see our inability, or His marvelous ability means nothing. "...He [Jesus] is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him..." (Heb. 7:25) And when He had single-handedly purged our sins (Heb. 1:3), He rose victorious from the grave and took His place at the right hand of God; whereby He abolished death and brought life and immortality to us through His gospel (2 Tim. 1:10).
Do you believe this (John 11:26)?
By: Leroy Rissler
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