By Obbie Todd, Student Minister at Zoar Baptist Church, Baton Rouge
Nearly 200 years ago, in modern-day Myanmar, two fearful disciples of Jesus Christ made their way down to a muddy river to be baptized.
It was the only way these two men had agreed to be baptized was under the cloak of darkness, hidden from the condemning eyes of their Burmese brothers. After all, to be identified as ‘Christian’ in Southeast Asia was to risk social, financial, and mortal danger.
In many parts it’s still the same today. Baptizing these men was Adoniram Judson, the first American missionary and first to the country of Burma.
Judson was a Baptist. He’d become so on his trans-Atlantic voyage. Nevertheless, after immersing each man in the river, Judson marked the occasion with a mix of joy and sorrow:
Perhaps Jesus looked down on us, pitied and forgave our weaknesses, and marked us for his own; perhaps, if we deny him not, he will acknowledge us another day, more publicly than we venture at present to acknowledge him. (1819)
Fast-forward 200 years.
Two more souls have given their lives to Jesus. However these disciples aren’t fearful for their lives. In fact, they live in America, with no physical barriers to their baptism.
Yet these two individuals have decided not to be baptized.
It provides a sharp contrast to the rich history of Baptists who proudly signaled their faith with the first act of obedience in the Christian life. So why is baptism so important?
A growing number of young Christians are asking themselves the same question. And surprisingly, more and more of them are opting not to be baptized.
In doing so, they’re opting not to formally join a church at all. Here’s their question: If I’m already saved by faith, why get baptized?
Rather than defining baptism, let’s first define the church.
The church is the people of God. But does God care to distinguish these people from the rest of the world?
The answer is yes. Like any groom, Christ desires his bride to be visible. And the world recognizes her by her love. (John 13:25)
But Christ not only desires visibility, he also desires unity. That can be a difficult concept for the modern American who translates a ‘personal’ faith into a ‘personal’ church.
At no point does a God of three Persons tell us to become a Church of one person. There’s a large difference between an individual walk and a solitary one.
Yet so many ‘Christians’ today don’t feel the need to join a church.
The Apostle Paul, however, saw salvation and baptism almost synonymously: “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27)
Baptism was and is the distinguishing sign of Christianity. Simply put, Christians get baptized.
There isn’t one example of a New Testament believer who had the privilege of being baptized and decided to pass.
As Baptists, we believe that’s because baptism is more than a symbol. It’s an opportunity to declare one’s faith to the world. Like godly patriotism in a way.
There is no active American soldier in the entire world who doesn’t proudly wear his country’s colors on his arm. It’s a badge of honor and allegiance. And baptism is similar.
It’s a sign of the internal transformation that’s taken place in the heart of the believer, from death to life. It is, in the most basic sense, a picture of obedient faith. So why in the world wouldn’t a Christian want to identify himself in the way clearly presented by Christ? (Matt. 3)
As trifling as it sounds, many young Baptists are hesitant to stand up in public. Especially in large churches. And that’s why we need to carefully define public confession.
Walking down to the altar after a message is a beautiful thing. But it isn’t the original public declaration of faith. Baptism is.
So many Baptists think that if they don’t ‘come down’ at the appropriate time, then their surrender isn’t genuine. But as Adoniram Judson reminds us, baptism is its own public confession.
Andrew Fuller, the founding secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society and best friends with William Carey, saw baptism as a cosmic declaration: Baptism is an act by which we declare before God, angels, and men, that we yield ourselves to be the Lord’s. (1800)
Baptism isn’t a wall. It’s a boundary to identify the bride of Christ.
It’s the first step that every infant Christian takes as they learn to walk.
It’s a visual depiction of our faith, a sign that we’re ‘all in’ for Jesus. The more a church loses its markers, the more it begins to look like the world.
And the less a church encourages the privilege of baptism, the less it promotes a faith of obedient fruit.
Want to do something big for Jesus? Start by being baptized.
It’s more than your duty. It’s your first chance to stand out. And to join a church full of a ‘little Christs.’