In this brief overview, Thabiti Anyabwile and J. Ligon Duncan outline central teachings concerning baptism and the Lord’s Supper. A Gospel Coalition Booklet.
About the Author
Thabiti M. Anyabwile (MS, North Carolina State University) serves as a pastor at Anacostia River Church in Washington, DC, and is the author of numerous books. He serves as a council member of the Gospel Coalition, is a lead writer for 9Marks Ministries, and regularly blogs at The Front Porch and Pure Church. He and his wife, Kristie, have three children.
Ligon Duncan (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is the chancellor & CEO and the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. He previously served as the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, for seventeen years. He is a cofounder of Together for the Gospel, a senior fellow of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and was the president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals from 2004-2012. Duncan has edited, written, or contributed to numerous books. Ligon and his wife, Anne, have two children and live in Jackson, Mississippi.
D. A. Carson (PhD, Cambridge University) is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he has taught since 1978. He is a cofounder of the Gospel Coalition and has written or edited nearly 120 books. He and his wife, Joy, have two children and live in the north suburbs of Chicago.
Timothy J. Kelleris the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. He is the best-selling author of The Prodigal God and The Reason for God.
Read an Excerpt
I [Anyabwile] sat across the table with Matthew, a creative, inquisitive, free-spirited twenty-five-year-old. He'd come into the restaurant as breezy and bright as the warm Caribbean day outside. Just a few minutes late, he smiled and casually apologized for any inconvenience he'd caused.
Taking up our menus, I wondered to myself what lay ahead in our conversation. Though he'd been attending church for nearly a year, I wasn't sure exactly where Matthew was spiritually or what his questions for me would be. No sooner had we ordered our meals and returned the menus to our waitress then Matthew turned to me and said, "So, I have a lot of questions."
"Wonderful," I replied, relieved that I wouldn't have to drag any conversation out of my young friend. "What's on your mind?"
That day Matthew asked me lots of things. Many of his questions dealt with themes such as God's glory and anger with sinners, the reliability of the Bible, the resurrection, the exclusivity of Jesus, and the future. For nearly two hours we enjoyed a really wonderful exploration of the Bible's teachings on these topics.
But near the end of our conversation, I grew concerned that Matthew, while asking great theological questions, was failing to deal with the more personal heart of the matter. So I asked, "Matthew, what will you do about your sin?"
He gulped, slightly taken aback, and replied, "I hope Jesus has taken care of them." Then he proceeded to tell me how six months earlier he had come to accept Christ as his Savior and Lord. At the end of his story, he said, "I want to join the church, but I'm not ready to be baptized."
Matthew had come to a point many Christians sometimes reach. He had come to understand the gospel and to rely upon Jesus for his salvation, but he had not yet come to understand just what that had to do with the local church. In other words, he had not come to see that the Lord gave two ordinances or sacraments for marking both his initiation into the Christian life and his ongoing fellowship with Christ. In giving these ordinances to the church, the Lord provided "visible words" that communicate the believer's union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (baptism) and the outworking of that union, namely, continuing fellowship with the Lord (the Lord's Supper). Both, then, become not just ordinances to be obeyed but also means of grace for our strengthening and enjoyment until Christ returns.
I live in a country where many people have come to believe that only the "near perfect Christian" may be baptized. Some have come to attach so much importance to baptism that the ordinance no longer applies to the "regular Christian" who experiences imperfection and struggles with sin. They assume that delaying baptism is the appropriate path for most Christians. During our lunch, Matthew expressed these beliefs.
I realize that Christians in many other places in the world make precisely the opposite error. They assign very little importance to baptism. Baptism may be a rite you undertake "when you're old enough" or an unimportant exercise left optional to each believer. It's a box checked off the spiritual to-do list and basically forgotten.
Christians may fall into either error: assigning either too little or too much importance to baptism. In doing so, we risk losing the beauty and richness of a command that Jesus himself instituted and that Christian churches have celebrated for nearly two thousand years. The solution is to embrace a biblical understanding of baptism that immerses us deeply in the gracious and efficacious work of our Lord Jesus Christ on behalf of sinners.
What Is Baptism?
In the most basic terms, baptism is a sign and a seal. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, baptism "is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of [the believer's] ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life" (28.1).
A sign is a symbol pointing to a greater reality or idea. Baptism is "a neon light flashing 'Gospel, Gospel, Gospel.'" When the church practices baptism, she testifies to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and signifies the sinner's union with Christ in all he did and accomplished on our behalf.
But baptism (and the Lord' Supper too, for that matter) is also a seal:
The sacraments are not only signs that point our attention back to Jesus Christ as presented in the gospel and thus remind us of his grace offered to the whole world. They are also seals, which assure us that God's grace and promise are given to us in particular. This word "seal," when used in the context of the Reformation, referred to the wax imprint that marked a document as official and legally binding. In this context, Baptism is the seal whereby God takes the general promise of the gospel and applies it to us in particular. In the ancient world, the same word also referred to marks on the body — brands or tattoos which functioned as a mark of ownership. We are "marked" by Christ's death and resurrection, as witnessed both by baptism and the Lord's Supper.
A ruler or king might affix his seal to an official edict or law. Correspondence received from a magistrate or influential person would bear the imprint or seal belonging to his office or family. Or a slave might bear the markings of his owner. Recipients and the public would thereby recognize the bearer of such a seal or marking as belonging to its owner.
In baptism, God places his mark upon the one baptized. The repentant and professing Christian receives the seal of heaven's ownership. God speaks to us in baptism: "This one so marked or sealed belongs to me."
In modern evangelicalism, people often speak of making a "public profession of faith." That phrase has come to be associated with things such as responding to altar calls, praying certain prayers, or signing response cards. In general, these actions focus on what we say to God. Unfortunately, many of these practices leave us thinking solely about what we say, not realizing that God wishes to speak of his love to his people. And they make what we say the decisive action or speech. But the Bible strongly supports none of those practices. The apostles and the early church, however, did have a way for repentant sinners to make a public profession, to signify their faith in Christ while receiving the seal of God's salvation — baptism.
The Beauty of Baptism
The beauty of baptism may be observed by considering what baptism signifies, for baptism wonderfully associates the believer with the many riches found in Christ.
The Atonement of Christ
First, baptism visibly portrays the atonement that Jesus accomplished. Redemption and the remission of sins are central to Christ's work and therefore central to the meaning of baptism:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Col. 2:13–15)
In baptism, we are reminded of our Lord's own baptism on our behalf. The Savior taught, "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished" (Luke 12:50 ESV). When overly ambitious disciples requested to sit at his side in his kingdom, Jesus humbled them by replying, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" (Mark 10:38 ESV). The cup the Master drank was the cup of the Father's wrath against sin. The distressing baptism he endured was the baptism of the cross where he made propitiation for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2).
Baptism reminds the church and the individual Christian of Jesus' cross, where Jesus took away and nailed our sins and where Jesus' triumph becomes our triumph. Baptism reminds us that Christ has suffered our judgment and made peace with God for us.
Union with Christ
Second, baptism represents the sinner's spiritual union with Jesus in his death, burial, and resurrection.
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order 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 like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (Rom. 6:1–5)
When Jesus died, we died with him. When he was buried, we were buried. When he rose, we rose, too! Because we are united to Christ by faith, we receive the benefits of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Through faith we vicariously participate in all that Jesus did. Baptism pictures that spiritual reality.
Our union with Christ is so strong that some have compared baptism to marriage. For example, Marion Clark writes, "God is our bridegroom, who has chosen us, paid the dowry, and given us his ring so that all may know that we belong to him. Even more, he has done so to make clear to us that we are his. The ceremony of baptism asserts that his love for us is not a dream but a reality." In baptism we exchange vows uniting Christ, the bridegroom, to his bride, the church.
Union with the Church
Baptism not only pictures our union with Christ but also our union with his body, the church. Having been joined to Christ through faith and the operation of the Holy Spirit, by the same Spirit "we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body" (1 Cor. 12:13). Or as the apostle Paul writes elsewhere, "There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:4–6).
Baptized individuals profess that they are joined to Christ's body through faith. That union with Christ manifests itself in union with his people, most concretely demonstrated by commitment and membership in a local church.
Whenever a couple has a new baby, family and friends visit the hospital, deliver well wishes, and rejoice at the addition of this new life. In a similar way, when people receive the sign and seal of baptism, they become a part of God's family, the church. They enjoy the privileges and responsibilities of family membership. Don Whitney explains this well: "When God brings a person into spiritual life, that person enters into the spiritual and invisible body of Christ — the universal church. When that spiritual experience is pictured in water baptism, that is the individual's symbolic entry into the tangible and visible body of Christ — the local church."
Consecration to God
Finally, we should understand that baptism signifies our consecration to God. In baptism we are set apart for worship and service to the God of our salvation. We are marked out from the world and sealed as belonging to God. This is why the apostle Paul often writes of New Testament ethical requirements when discussing baptism. For example:
In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col. 2:11–12)
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:11–14)
Because our lives are united with Christ by faith and the Spirit's engrafting, we are obligated to live "circumcised" lives, to "put off the sinful nature." We "count ourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus" and we "offer ourselves to God." Because we died with Christ, sin no longer reigns over us. We are freed from the tyranny of unrighteousness. "Our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin" (Rom. 6:6). We belong to a new Master. Credobaptists would add that we go down to the "watery grave" to be raised in newness of life.
Our baptism obligates us to live in righteousness so that we honor, not shame, our Lord with whom we have been buried and raised to life in baptism. We cannot go back. We have entered into the new covenant; we have sworn allegiance to our king. Now we must live as citizens and servants of his kingdom.
My friend Matthew did not see the beauty of baptism. He thought of baptism primarily as something he said to the world: "Hey, I'm living for Jesus and plan not to mess up." He failed to recognize that God says in baptism, "Hey, you belong to me. I've made you new. You will live for me because I will live in you."
When viewed from that perspective, baptism gains the beauty and importance it deserves. It becomes a means of grace for the believer, a reminder of the gospel and Savior that rescue us.
Moreover, baptism opens the doors of continuing fellowship with our Lord. That continuing fellowship with the Lord finds expression in another sign and seal, the Lord's Supper or Communion Meal.
Paedobaptists and Credobaptists
I [Duncan] love the way Thabiti lays out the doctrine of baptism here and the pastoral view he gives us of its importance in the lives of Christians. He, as a Baptist, and I, as a Presbyterian, thus far agree. But we also want to acknowledge that there are some areas of significant disagreement among otherwise united members of The Gospel Coalition on the subject of baptism. In general, we agree on the meaning, importance, and function of baptism, but we have some disagreements on the mode and subjects (or proper recipients of baptism). These differences are not inconsequential, and so we want to honor one another's consciences under the Word of God, and we want the members of our respective churches to understand and take these issues seriously.
Some of us in The Gospel Coalition are credobaptists (that is, Christians like Thabiti who believe that only believers should be baptized) and others of us are paedobaptists (that is, Christians like me who believe that both believers and their children should be baptized). Both groups seek to ground their baptismal practice in the teaching of Scripture, but both come to different conclusions as to what the Bible teaches about the proper recipients of baptism.
Evangelical paedobaptists believe that the Bible teaches that the church should baptize the children of believers as well as adult professing believers who have not been previously baptized. We believe that baptism is a new-covenant sign that points to and confirms the gracious saving promise of God to his people and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. We base the administration of baptism to believers and their children on our understanding of passages such as Genesis 17, Matthew 28, Colossians 2, 1 Corinthians 7, and Acts 2 and 16.
We agree with our credobaptist friends that (1) Christ commands Christian baptism in Matthew 28 ("Go ... make disciples ... baptizing ... and ... teaching them") and that (2) believers should be baptized as in Acts 8:
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" And Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him. (vv. 35–38 nasb)
But we disagree on a third point, because paedobaptists also believe that Christian believers and their children should be baptized. If we had to reduce our biblical argument for paedobaptism to one (albeit complex!) sentence, it would be something like this:
God made promises to believers and their children in both the Old and Testaments, attached signs to those promises in both the Old and New Testaments, explicitly required the sign of initiation into his family (circumcision) to be applied to believers and their children in the Old Testament, and implicitly appointed the new-covenant sign of initiation (baptism) to be given to believers and their children in the New Testament.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Baptism and the Lord's Supper"
Copyright © 2011 The Gospel Coalition.
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Table of Contents
The Lord's Supper, 18,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This short booklet presents an objective explanation of the diverse understanding of Christian baptism - those who believe baptism is to be extended only to believing Christians and those who believe it should be extended to those who believe and their children. It also presents the three major understandings of the Eucharist (The Lord's Supper or Communion) - those who believe our participation is merely a memorial recollection of the historic event of Jesus' crucifixion, those who believe in a spiritual presence of Jesus with us, and those who believe the bread and wine actually become the physical body and blood of Jesus to those that are baptized. Scripture is presented on all perspectives that can be clearly supported by Scripture. This edition is edited by two contemporary scholars and although it is short, it is well worth reading.