What is baptism of water? This is a question that has sparked debate among faithful, biblically sound Christians for centuries. Should infants be baptized? Should believers only be baptized? Is baptism a work or merit of salvation? Is it a sign? Is it necessary? How necessary?
As you can see, questions over baptism are innumerable, and they come with varying answers that have led to a plethora of denominations within Christianity. Even with these questions and the many answers that have been given, the importance of giving an answer is not diminished. As a Christian, this is an incredibly important doctrine to be able to articulate an answer.
What is baptism, really?
Your answer to this question should determine which denomination you belong to, how you approach universal/local church membership, the Lord’s Supper, etc.
I find it very helpful to not only search the Scriptures and theological works to develop a biblically and theologically sound answer, but to also search the halls of church history. What have Christians throughout the history of the church said and believed about baptism? It is through standing on the shoulders of these stalwarts of the faith that we can more clearly see doctrinal truth.
As a Southern Baptist, the view I hold on baptism found tremendous resurgence in the 16th century with the Anabaptist movement. The theological juggernaut in this movement was a man by the name of Balthasar Hubmaier (1480-1528). He was a Catholic priest who converted to Zwinglian theology in 1523. By 1525, he joined the Anabaptist movement as a result of his conviction that believer’s baptism is the only appropriate understanding of baptism. He was burned at the stake in 1528 by Catholic authorities for his beliefs.
In 1526, he wrote A Christian Catechism to serve as a teaching tool, which propagated his Anabaptist ideas. In the catechism, he addressed the doctrine of baptism. The question is asked: “What is the baptism of water?” This is the answer Hubmaier gives:
It is an external and evident sign of the internal baptism of the Spirit which man gives with the reception of water, whereby he confesses his sins before all men. He shows also thereby that he believes that these are forgiven through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. By this he also lets himself be externally registered, enlisted, and thus, by the baptism of water, incorporated into the community of the church, according to the institution of Christ; before the church the person also openly and verbally makes a vow to God and promises in the power of God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that he will from now on believe and live according to his divine Word. And where he trespasses in this regard, he will submit to brotherly punishment according to the ordinance of Christ (Matt. 18:15)… (cited in A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions, ed. Denis Janz, pp. 202-204)