(The following extract is from a lead article in The Call 1998/2)
For nearly three hundred and fifty years we have been repeatedly asked one question, amongst many: why is it that we do not baptize our folk with water?
Our questioners cite much biblical precedent for the practice, and claim, not without strength to their argument, that it is clear that the practice was widespread if not universal in the early Church, and has passed down in some form or other to every branch of Christendom – with ours as an exception.
As with all matters of doctrine and performance, we have to be ready to answer such questions. But have our answers become pat and glib? In a way, we must thank our constant questioners, for forcing us to reappraise our doctrine, review our practice, and – importantly – submit it in prayer to the Lord, to ask if we are right to maintain this witness. If we can truly give the same answer – under the same anointing of the Holy Spirit – as was given by our first generation, then all well and good; if not, if our answer has become formal and sectarian, then we deserve not to be heard.
For a moment, pay attention to some of the language used by our questioners, concerning water baptism: they speak variously of “sealing their faith” with it, of “sacrament”, of “ordinance”, and of “rite”. Without labouring this point, it has to be said that the application of such terms depends upon human invention, because they are not applied to water baptism anywhere in the New Testament.
In the mid seventeenth century, many of these terms were at the centre of bitter conflicts, even wars, as the various sects contended with each other as true Christianity. Persecution of Catholics by Protestants, Protestants by Catholics, and even Protestants by other Protestants, was rife! (Some Groups, such as Quakers and our peaceloving friends the Anabaptists, suffered at the hands of both sides). Amongst their contention was who should be baptized – infants? youngsters? adults? – and how – sprinkling? pouring? immersion? Also how, if at all, did the bestowal of the Holy Spirit depend upon all these?
But in the midst of all this conflict about the superficial aspects of Christianity (with which the Devil was well pleased!), the Lord called and assembled our first generation, to be his people. He gave them his promised baptism with the Holy Ghost, and charged them to go out into the world and bear a strong and courageous testimony, by doing without water at all, to the efficacy, sufficiency, and truth of his baptism. In this, that generation were his prophets.
Reading it and quoting it in the same Spirit in which it was given forth, our first generation were more truly attentive to the Bible, and believed it more fully, than any “sect” of the time. They drew to others’ attention what was revealed in Scripture about baptism, and proved it by their lives.
But “can any man forbid water?” say our questioners, echoing Peter (Acts 10:47), the apostle to whom Christ first charged the feeding of his sheep. After all, Christ was baptized (Matthew 3:15) and his disciples baptised with water even though he did not (John 4:2), and there are many other such baptisms shown later in Scripture. Let this be clear: we forbid no one anything – the choice is theirs! Neither did our first generation ever coerce anyone to their way; they simply acted upon the immediate command of Christ. Neither is it claimed that water baptism was not known in the early Church; clearly it was.
There is not enough space here to compile an exhaustive exegesis to show the biblical soundness of this prophetic witness. Let it suffice for now to say that Christ’s promised baptism, to all and not just to his disciples, is with the Holy Ghost (John 1:33 inter alia); and that John was to decrease and Christ increase (John 3:30). There is witness borne to the bestowal of the Holy Spirit before , or without, the application of water (Acts 10:44), and of the application of water without the bestowal of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2,3). Peter, who firstly asked whether any man could forbid water to those (already) baptized with the Holy Spirit, later recalled and understood the promise of the one baptism of Jesus Christ (Acts 11:16). There is also evidence in scripture of the earliest contention about baptism (1Corinthians 1:11-15), foreshadowing the bloody conflicts, into the midst of which our first generation stepped.
Importantly, the apostles constantly warned of accepting the shadow, the outward show, for the substance; and they constantly warned of false messengers, even in their time, that lead the Church astray. They were wise in so warning, for history has shown how the Church slipped very quickly into centuries of apostasy, during which not only did water baptism become an important ritual, but also all kinds of idols, days, seasons, rules and so on, which were not so much as hinted at in the New Testament, gained prominence. Thus the situation as it stood in the seventeenth century came about, and thus the Lord called us to be a people, a prophetic people in the face of that situation.
But it is no longer the seventeenth century. Rightly, we can be challenged that refraining from something can become as legalistic as doing it. Indeed it can! There has been ample time for the non-use of water to become no more that a sectarian peculiarity – and can we claim that none of us fell into that snare? It is doubtful.
But equally, the old ways and notions persist, against which our first generation stood, and it is necessary (at Christ’s command and only at Christ’s command) to continue faithfully to stand against them.
“So,” objectors ask, “are you calling us false Christians?” Be sure that God will judge that – who is true and who is false – and all who think they stand should take heed lest they fall! Also be sure that if all or any one of us is commanded by the Lord to say “False Christian” to someone, then we shall say it as bravely as any apostle ever spoke. But it is not generally to any perceived falseness that we now draw your attention, but to God and Christ. There are many of our questioners and objectors who genuinely and sincerely love the Lord, and who strive to obey and please him; and indeed we know and feel that any sincere prayer, any turning of heart and mind to the Lord, any step taken towards him, is attended by a measure of grace. In all such things, the Lord holds his arms out to us, and calls, “Come”, and draws us closer to him, into worship in spirit and in truth.
But equally, worldly notions hold us fast, and the Devil whispers seductively in our ear, encouraging our satisfaction with what we already have, urging us to eat manna stored beyond its day, bolstering our self-righteousness.
So, sincere Christians – our dear questioners – it is to the inward witness we would point you. We, as much as you, have an obligation to search inwardly and see where Christ leads us; also to sit with our Bibles open and our hearts and minds at the Lord’s mercy, to let his Holy Spirit guide our reading.
For we know, and can testify today, that what really seals our faith is that same Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). We will not forbid you water, or anything; but there are those of us who were, for example, sprinkled as infants and thereby made not one whit better, who have since come to know the powerful, continuous, eternal baptism of Jesus Christ with the Holy Ghost and fire. There are those of us, moreover, who, in answer to our beliefs of the time, were immersed in water; and whatever we felt at that time, now and since have come to know the baptism of the Holy Ghost. And indeed there are those of us who have never known the touch of water, but nevertheless have come to know the one baptism of Jesus Christ.
So can we say that we, today, are the Lord’s prophets? Let us bring this constantly before Him, so that the testimony can be constantly renewed. Amen.