Distinctive Baptist Beliefs:
Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians
Distinctive Baptist Belief #4—
Baptism by the Mode of Immersion

September 2, 2011

By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the
Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.


All denominations that broadly share the Reformation heritage share more beliefs in common (orthodox Nicean Christianity plus key Reformation beliefs) than beliefs on which we differ. Despite these many points of agreement, it is the points of agreement on which theological discussions tend to focus. In an earlier post entitled “The Middle Way,” I asserted that centrist Baptists are “the middle way” between Arminians, on the one hand, and Calvinists/Presbyterians, on the other. In it, I listed twelve points of doctrinal disagreement between centrist Baptists and many Arminians. In this series I want to point out nine points of difference between centrist Baptist beliefs and the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition.

These nine Baptist doctrinal distinctives I will discuss do not include the five point summary of Reformed soteriology (best known in the TULIP acronym–for a critique of five-point Calvinism from a centrist Baptist perspective see our book Whosoever Will). In fact, most of the nine points that I will be addressing were explicitly held by the Particular Baptists in contradistinction from the Presbyterian or Reformed theology from which they separated themselves. These, then, are distinctively Baptist beliefs. The first Baptist distinctive I addressed was a cluster of interrelated beliefs — soul competency, priesthood of all believers, and religious liberty. The second Baptist distinctive addressed was the age (or state) of accountability. The third Baptist distinctive I addressed was believer’s baptism (or “the gathered church”).[1] In this article I am pointing out a fourth Baptist distinctive (in contrast with Presbyterianism): baptism by mode of immersion.

Distinctive Baptist Belief #4:
Baptism by the Mode of Immersion

The Second London and Philadelphia confessions differ strikingly from the Westminster Confession regarding the mode of baptism. According to the Westminster Confession, “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person.”[2] In stark contrast to this Presbyterian mode of baptism, the Second London and Philadelphia confessions affirm that “immersion, or dipping of the person in water, is necessary to the due administration of this ordinance (Matt. 3:16; John 3:23).”[3] Baptism by immersion is again affirmed in Article 7 of the BF&M.

Like all distinctive Baptist beliefs, believer’s baptism by immersion is not merely a tradition, but arises out of a careful reading of God’s Word. The Greek word baptizo literally means to immerse in water. Since many early translations of the Bible into English were done by persons from denominations which practice sprinkling, rather than translate the word baptize as “immerse,” they transliterated it into a new anglicized version of the word, “baptize.”

However, the main scriptural reason for affirming that baptism should be by immersion is what baptism signifies. According to Rom. 6:1-11, the proper symbol of baptism is not washing away sin, but of death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism looks back to the past as a memorial and reminder of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. As Paul affirms, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death” (Rom. 6:3-4). Regarding the present, baptism symbolizes the death to the old self and the resurrection to the new life in Christ. Paul refers several times to this symbol of our old sinful nature being “crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (Rom. 6:6), but “should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). We should therefore reckon ourselves, Paul says, “to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:11). Baptism also looks forward to the resurrection at the end of time, for “if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom. 6:5).

There are some Baptists today, however, who are willing to compromise this distinctive Baptist belief that even the Calvinistic Particular Baptists required. In our pluralistic world, it is common for many young married couples to come from different denominational traditions, and a spouse who comes from a different tradition may resist receiving Scriptural baptism in order to become a member of a Baptist church. The path of least resistance is to just allow anyone to join our church by statement of their faith in Christ. One danger of compromising doctrinal convictions in order to be tolerant or in the interest of ecumenical unity is that the call for one compromise after another never ends.[4] Once one starts down the path of compromising one’s own biblical convictions, it is difficult to hold any doctrine uncompromisingly. Should one ever compromise what one believes to be not merely a private opinion, but a scriptural teaching?

[1] To preview the entire series, you can see the larger article from which these posts are drawn, plus responses from three theological perspectives, from a paper presentation for a conference sponsored by the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. You can see them at Steve Lemke, “What Is a Baptist? Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 5, no. 2 (Fall 2008):10-39; available online at http://www.baptistcenter.com/Documents/Journals/JBTM%205-2_Baptists_in_Dialogue_Fall_08.pdf#page=11. It is posted in this blog format in SBC Today to facilitate discussion on these issues. The next scheduled article in this series is “Baptist Distinctive #5:  Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as Symbolic Ordinances.”

[2] Westminster Confession, Art. 28, par. 3.

[3] Second London Confession, Art. 29, par. 4; Philadelphia Confession, Art. 30, par. 4. Dunaway cites the findings of the 1894 Presbyterian General Assembly that “Baptism by immersion is not Scriptural as to its mode,” in Dunaway, “Why Baptist and Not Presbyterian,” in J. M. Frost, ed., Baptist Why and Why Not (Nashville: Sunday School Board, 1900), 131. See also C. A. Stakely, “Why Immersion and Not Sprinkling or Pouring,” in Baptist Why and Why Not, 163-180.

[4] For one well-publicized example, John Piper, Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, (a Baptist General Conference church) presented a paper to the church’s elders in January 2002 called, “Twelve Theses on Baptism and Its Relationship to Church Membership, Church Leadership, and Wider Affiliations and Partnerships of Bethlehem Baptist Church,” in which Piper proposed the following amendment concerning the requirement for baptism for membership in the church: “Therefore, where the belief in the Biblical validity of infant baptism does not involve baptismal regeneration or the guarantee of saving grace, this belief is not viewed by the elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church as a weighty or central enough departure from Biblical teaching to exclude a person from membership, if he meets all other relevant qualifications and is persuaded from Bible study and a clear conscience that his baptism is valid. In such a case we would not require baptism by immersion as a believer for membership but would teach and pray toward a change of mind that would lead such members eventually to such a baptism.” [John Piper, “Twelve Theses on Baptism and Its Relationship to Church Membership, Church Leadership, and Wider Affiliations and Partnerships of Bethlehem Baptist Church,” p. 14 in “Baptism and Church Membership at Bethlehem Baptist Church: Eight Recommendations for Constitutional Revision,” by John Piper, Alex Chediak, and Tom Steller, available online at http://desiringgod.org/media/pdf/baptism_and_membership.pdf]. Piper’s proposed statement did not find initial agreement among the church’s elders, but Piper continued pushing the issue with the elders in multiple meetings over several years. Piper finally persuaded the elders to approve an amended policy in August 2005. Although expressing preference for baptism by immersion, the amended membership statement (somewhat echoing Mohler’s proposed theological triage) expressed the desire “not to elevate beliefs and practices that are nonessential to the level of prerequisites for church membership.”] Thus, according to the proposed amended policy, “Christians who have not been baptized by immersion as believers, but, as they believe, by some other method or before they believed, may under some circumstances be members of this church.” [“Eight Recommendations Approved by the Council of Elders, August 2005,” p. 11 in “Baptism and Church Membership at Bethlehem Baptist Church” by Piper, Chediak, and Steller, available online at http://desiringgod.org/media/pdf/baptism_and_membership.pdf ]. However, Piper and the elders later withdrew the proposal in December 2005 when some elders again doubted the wisdom of moving forward in response to a public outcry against the proposal. On a different (Bethlehem Baptist Church) web site, an undated statement is posted under the heading, “Present Status of the Baptism & Membership Issue.” This statement describes the timing and reasons for withdrawing the proposed amendment, and adds the following statement about future plans for dealing with this issue: “The elders realize that the issue cannot be dropped because the majority of the elders still favor the motion, including almost all the pastoral staff, and because that conviction puts most of the elders and staff in conflict with at least one literal reading of the Bethlehem Affirmation of Faith. Our Affirmation of Faith defines the local church as follows: “We believe in the local church, consisting of a company of believers in Jesus Christ, baptized on a credible profession of faith, and associated for worship, work, and fellowship. . . .” Noting that their current affirmation of faith differs from Presbyterian doctrine on this point, the elders state, “In view of these things, we will be praying and thinking and discussing various ways to move forward together as a church.” (See “Present Status of the Baptism and Membership Issue,” accessible online at http://www.hopeingod.org/CurrentTopicsBaptismMembership.aspx). In an interview done a year later and posted on the Desiring God web site, Piper repeats this information but states, “I still think it was a mistake” to withdraw the amendment, and “I would love to see this go forward someday if we could get more of our people on board.” (See “Can You Update Us on the Baptism and Church Membership Issue from 2005?” by John Piper at http://www.desiringGod.org). So despite temporarily withdrawing the amendment for pragmatic reasons in the face of a negative public response, Piper and the majority of the elders at Bethlehem Baptist Church remain adamant that the church should not require believer’s baptism by immersion for church membership, and express the desire to change the existing policy when opposition subsides. Again, this is a doctrinal compromise that our Particular Baptist forbears were not willing to make.