J. M. Frost - 1916
J. M. Frost. The Baptist World, Louisville, Ky., Sept. 30, 1915.
IN the evangelistic campaigns of the New Testament, when the foundations of historical Christianity and of the Christian system in its didactic character were being laid, baptism and baptizing held commanding place. It was something of a banner for display of the truth, served in a way almost as the key note of triumph, and made public the victories of the cross. The record tells in terms of baptism how the work went on, how the word of the Lord was magnified and supplemented in this ordinance of the Lord, either by the multitudes who were baptized or by the baptism of individual persons whose distinction added to the distinction of the simple rite, as with the treasurer of the Ethiopian queen or Saul of Tarsus at Damascus.
We are laying much stress upon evangelism, but are we as bold as those early preachers in sounding the baptismal note? They were not afraid of being misunderstood in setting a ceremony well to the fore, not that they preached on baptism though doubtless telling of its meaning; but they preached, men were converted, and baptism followed. They were not deterred either that an occasional Simon Magus came on the scene, or lest ”an externality” in religion should in some way be mistaken for the inner spiritual experience of grace.
How close are we to the New Testament methods-or how far away? I recall the Tabernacle meetings at Nashville, in which I took no small part, did my utmost indeed for their furtherance and to gather the fruitage which at best was scant enough. We had the services of the most successful evangelists, and enormous crowds waited on their ministry. The reports as to the outcome told how many hundreds ”signed cards” for this or that, or ”held up their hands” in testimony of some important proposition, or ”gave their hands to the evangelists” in token of some promise or pledge for the future. So it would go on night after night, day after day, through a succession of evangelistic meetings year after year, until Mr. Moody himself said, ”Nashville was the worst burnt-over town” he ever saw.
This is written simply for illustration and not to depreciate those meetings or meetings like them. There was much sincere and serious earnestness, some exceptionally fine preaching, especially by Mr. Moody, much also of spiritual enjoyment and uplift, and without doubt genuine conversions unto the Lord. But one note was missing which rang clear and strong in the evangelistic campaigns of John, of Christ, and of the preachers who came after. The question of how many were baptized is all right as a New Testament inquiry, but as to those Tabernacle meetings would have been thought out of place, possibly hurtful and wrong. But if we want New Testament evangelism why not follow New Testament methods in directing our campaigns, and New Testament standards in estimating results? And is it not more than probable that in shutting off the baptismal note we lose both the evangelistic and evangelical power which the remarkable ordinance holds in its symbolic import and didactic character?
The New Testament record is as clear as the noonday and powerfully impressive in its emphasis and enforcement of the things which I am here venturing to mention. No word of mine can exaggerate or even match the wonderful account of how the work was carried forward at the first, and how baptism came to its commanding position and everywhere marked the triumphs of the cross both in the hearts and lives of men.
First came John, preaching and baptizing-a man sent of God to preach and baptize after the heavenly pattern-preached repentance for the remission of sin-heralded the coming of the Messianic reign-baptized the people in token of their inner change and of their alignment and allegiance with the new order. Immense crowds flocked to his ministry and baptism, coming from Jerusalem, from all Judea and from regions beyond Jordan, and were baptized of him in the Jordan confessing their sins.
Some came indeed who heard him tell of the wrath to come, had felt the power and pungency of his preaching, but lacked the inner change required by the new rite, missed the whole meaning of his message. These were sent away for a change of mind and heart, and until they could bring forth fruit meet for repentance. It was a new day in Israel. A new preacher had arisen with a new message. The kingdom of God was coming in, coming in after his plan through this first evangelistic campaign of the New Testament - a campaign of God’s ordering, with the baptismal note clear and strong, and which served as a call to repentance, emphasized the need of the inner change, called for a new life, and signaled the coming of the King.
Christ then came on the scene, preaching the kingdom of God, calling sinners to repentance, seeking to save the lost, and so opened what I venture to call the second evangelistic campaign of the New Testament. He came from his home in Nazareth unto John to be baptized of him in the Jordan, began his public life with his baptism in the river, while the heavens opened above, the Holy Spirit descended, the Father gave his approval and made public announcement in his behalf.
Much is said of his teaching and preaching, of his healing and other miracles, of how people crowded upon his ministry, yet no record is made of their flocking to his baptism as they did to the baptism of John. There is one word, however, incidental as it were, but distinct, unmistakable in meaning and full of significance: ”Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus himself baptized not but his disciples)’ These words illustrate how much went on in his ministry that did not get in the record, give emphasis to the order of baptizing those who first became disciples, and show how those baptized by his disciples are counted as having received baptism at the hands of our Lord. So to this day, following his example, his leadership, we have the commanding word: ”Thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Then the third campaign, but differing in no essential features from those preceding. The disciples under their new commission and with the power of the Holy Spirit from on high, began their evangelistic labors with the same baptismal note as was heard from John and from our Lord himself. Like their predecessors, they preached repentance for the remission of sin, and baptized in token of the work of grace wrought within. This was the preaching of Pentecost, and its startling results, added to the wonders of the day, were told as if for emphasis in baptismal terms: ”They that gladly received his word were baptized; and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.” The stirring scenes of the Jordan, with the preaching and baptizing, had been transferred to Jerusalem, and from this center the good news would go to the uttermost parts of the earth, telling in word and symbol the wonderful achievements of God’s grace among men.
Furthermore, the following considerations are offered for this high place given to the great ordinance in the efforts of the apostles, namely: its place of honor in the commission, its relation to organized Christianity, its didactic emphasis of evangelical truth, together with its outward expression in symbolic form of the work of grace wrought within the heart.
Evangelize is the first word of the great comission for making disciples of all nations; but the second is like unto it, and bears equally the authority of Jesus, declares for his Sovereignty and Deity, pledges obedience and allegiance to him - ”baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Surely ordinance never had more distinguished setting! It is magnified in its relation to the Godhead, while in turn each of the three divine persons has separate mention, is honored and glorified in this simple service of ceremonial obedience and worship. Its right administration in spirit, form and purpose, is to this day a wonderful profession of faith in this perhaps the profoundest truth of New Testament teaching. Simple enough indeed, and yet an act of obedience and worship which expresses in an outward way the loftiest emotions of the human soul.
Baptism, moreover, with its companion ordinance, the Memorial Supper, was at the very start wrought into the texture and structure of organized Christianity, as seen in the individual church - first at Jerusalem and then in other individual churches as they were multiplied throughout the world and throughout the centuries even to this day. The ordinance is inherent in church organization and life, promotive of its ”welfare and expressive of its distinctive character.
The record makes it clear, almost with startling effect, how these two ordinances were promptly brought to the fore on the day of Pentecost, and shows already their fixed and commanding place in the church, marking its increase in numbers, fellowship and spiritual power. ”And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
In telling of further displays of grace and power, the record shows the great ordinance as holding a high place in the preaching and practice of the apostles-as the banner of an army marching to conquest.
The high official from Ethiopia, converted as he rode in his chariot, sought baptism at the hand of Philip as honor and privilege, no less than obligation and duty. So also with Saul of Tarsus, held in the power of his midday vision of glory, happy and obedient in his new experience of saving grace, and having already profound conviction of the Lordship of Jesus; and the word - ”Why tarriest thou, arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins; calling on the name of the Lord,” had prompt response from this Hebrew of the Hebrews, this Pharisee of the Pharisees. Surely symbol never bore profounder content of meaning or told its story with more charm and power.
For further illustration see how word and symbol combine in the apostolic ministry. They made large and noble use of the symbolic import and worth of baptism to illumine and enforce the most momentous matters ever presented for human consideration.
They preached Christ crucified but risen from the dead with the fullness of saving power, while baptism showed in figure and picture his resurrection and the empty sepulchre left behind in the garden-with the oft repeated word, ”He is not here. He is risen as he said; come see the place where the Lord lay.”
They preached the believer’s union with Christ, his spiritual resurrection and his being a new creature, his prior need of a new heart within and a new life without as one risen from the dead; and while baptism cannot work the change within, cannot make the heart new or help to make one clean of sin, cannot save or help to save, yet in marvelous fashion this wonderful ordinance gives an outward expression of these inner changes, demands a new heart of all who would be baptized, sets a line between the old life and the new, and requires newness of walk in all who wear its badge of distinction and honor.
They preached that we do not belong to ourselves but to him who hath washed us in his own precious blood, to whom we owe all allegiance and loyalty - while baptism is the obedience of one saved through faith in Christ, and whose baptismal vows are his pledge to honor and serve the King.
They preached triumph for this life with the final resurrection of the dead to follow-while baptism in a figure, clear and bold, is a forecast for the fulfillment of the promise, when the voice of the Son of man shall speak the word and the dead shall come from their graves.
This New Testament ordinance holds all these great truths in symbol, and sets them out with something like dramatic effect in the immersion of a believer upon profession of faith in Christ Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. So much so and with such power, that the sign is sometimes mistaken for the thing signified, the shadow for the substance. But the distinction is clear and need not be misunderstood. Appeal is sometimes made to the symbolism of its form in proof of immersion, the rather should we appeal to the ordinance in its symbolic import to enforce the wonderful things for which it stands. Baptism demands a new heart indeed, but a new heart also demands baptism, which is ”the answer of a good conscience toward God.” The question of the Ethiopian convert - ”See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” is at the very base of the philosophy of Christian experience and life.
Such is the place and rank assigned the great ordinance in the evangelistic services of the New Testament. Such is the one New Testament pattern set for evangelism in the churches and there is no mistaking the baptismal note throughout its pages. It was fitting then, and cannot be out of place for modern Christianity. It shows the base lines on which the work was conducted then with power and effectiveness. It may be our despair or inspiration - despair if the note is too high for us, but inspiration if only we can grow its spirit, hold steadfastly to its standard and lofty endeavor. Surely it must be right to follow where the New Testament leads.
We should not be deterred because baptism has sometimes been overdone as an ordinance, for it has sometimes also been fearfullv underestimated. All the more indeed should we set ourselves to maintain its New Testament standard and spirit, position, meaning and use, as a thing commanded of the King and holding in symbol the achievements of grace which he has wrought.
The ordinance has suffered, and consequently the truth which it conveys has also suffered, by reaction from men who have gone to the extreme of either overwrought or inadequate views. To stand between, say the word that ought to be said, insist on a return to New Testament simplicity, teaching and standards, is indeed a mission altogether worthy, and should command the attention of Christian people everywhere.
Baptism was sadly misplaced by Alexander Campbell, and in his hands lost its real value, its original spirit and purpose, and incidentally suffered even as to its ”mode” - more perhaps than from any other one man of modern times. He turned away from his former pedobaptist notion, that baptism is a ”mere rite,” a ’’mere ceremony,” an ”externality in religion” of little or no consequence, but immediately went to the other extreme, and developed his theory of salvation through obedience in this specific act. He did not put too much stress upon obedience, but misplaced it egregiously in the scheme of grace.
Had he spent his strength in magnifying obedience as essential in the divine economy, and insisted on baptism as the obedience of the saved man, then he would have wrought a reformation indeed, and brought the whole Christian world under obligation to him. But as it was, though he came so close to a principle of tremendous moment, he yet missed it so far as to develop, or rather revise in perhaps modified form, the two most deadly errors in Christian history, namely, baptismal regeneration and baptismal remission of sins.
The Christian world revolted and still revolts, though he won his followers and they have increased with the years while the evil continues to work its mischief. He and his followers have rendered valuable service in maintaining the meaning of the word baptism, and defending immersion as the original form, but they have done more harm than can ever be told in getting baptism misplaced in the Christian system and misfit in Christian experience.
His right form became confused, even identified, in the minds of the people with the wrong design. Devout people, caught in the confusion, revolt at Mr. Campbell’s wrong ”design of baptism,” and think they are revolting from his ”mode of baptism.” And the reaction has gone so far and with such hurtful influence that obedience itself is discounted and discredited as fundamental and essential in the divine government.
Over against all this stands our plea for the ordinance in its proper spirit, form and purpose. Indeed, baptism itself with its New Testament significance and emphasis is a profound and oft repeated protest against Campbell’s whole false and ruinous scheme. With that discarded, the plea is renewed for the baptismal note in our evangelistic work as sounded throughout the New Testament and as a note which has the honor of heaven upon it.
We need to grow in ourselves a rich sentiment for the ordinance, a sentiment which magnifies its usefulness, greatness and didactic power; because it is commanded of our Lord and requires obedience and fulfillment of his word; because he himself walked in this way, a baptized Saviour leading a saved and baptized people; and because he has charged the ordinance in its symbolic import with such tremendous significance, making it to reflect his honor, his gracious work of grace within, and his achievement of resurrection power and glory, both as historic monument for the past and prophetic foregleam of triumphant future.