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Baptism A Condition Of Church Membership


Baptism is a Christian ordinance. It originated in the wisdom, goodness, and authority of God. John was divinely commissioned to baptize (John 1:3). Jesus honored the ordinance of baptism by receiving it at the hands of John (Matthew 3:16, 17). When Jesus entered on his public ministry, he continued the administration of baptism, through the agency of his disciples (John 4:2, 3). The ordinance occupies an important place in the great commission which Jesus, after his resurrection, gave to the apostles for evangelizing the world (Matthew 28:19, 20). No man can intelligently and candidly read the New Testament without perceiving that baptism is of solemn import, and designed to exert a momentous influence in the kingdom of Christ.

It has been already shown that the first church was organized in the city of Jerusalem, after the ascension of Jesus, and was composed entirely of believers. This church was formed exclusively of Jews. No Gentile was admitted, or could have been admitted for some years after its constitution, to a participation of its privileges. The Jews were not received into it in virtue of their descent from Abraham, or their interest in the covenant that God made with him, or their circumcision, or their good standing in the hierarchy. Still more, they were not admitted into it simply because of their repentance, faith, and regeneration. Peter, standing in the midst of the great Pentecostal assembly, with a cloven tongue of fire upon him, to symbolize his plenary inspiration, said: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38). Repentance was an indispensable duty?it implied faith. and, the, new birth?a great moral change; but it was not enough to secure a participation in the privileges of the church then in the process of formation. It was a visible body, and a divinely prescribed outward act, in confession of repentance, faith, and the remission of sins, through the name of Jesus Christ, was an essential condition of a formal union with it. To this inspired order the converts all conformed. "Then they that gladly received" Peter?s "word were baptized; and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls" (v. 41). There is no misconceiving the meaning of this language. The converts were baptized before they entered the church. Of the multitudes, on that day of excitement and of wonders, not one was added to the church without baptism.

We must notice briefly the significance of this transaction. Jesus, after he was risen from the dead, remained forty days with his apostles, "speaking of those things pertaining to the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:2). We cannot doubt that his instructions were comprehensive and minute. The apostles were liable, however, to misunderstand or forget his teaching; but, to preserve them from the possibility of error, they were commanded to remain until they "should be endued with power from on high;" that is, receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit ( Luke 24:49; Acts 1:5). Are we not bound to believe that the Apostles, on the day of Pentecost, having been "endued with power from on high," said and did just what was according to the will of Christ, and designed to be for the guidance of his disciples in all ages? What they required of the Jews on the day of Pentecost. In order to admission into the church, was required of them at all places, at all times, and under all circumstances, for the same purpose.

If baptism was demanded of the Jews as a prerequisite of church membership, we may reasonably conclude that the Gentiles were not admitted to the privilege except on the same condition. The Jews, as some Pedobaptists maintain, were already members of the church, and had received the rite of circumcision, for which baptism is merely a substitute; and yet the Jews?even rulers of the Jews, and priests, though they had been circumcised and were devout?could not be admitted into the church at Jerusalem, or into any other church, without baptism. Certainly, then, the heathen, ignorant of God and his worship, were not received into the churches without this divinely appointed, public, solemn, and impressive acknowledgment of the authority of Christ and the enjoyment of the remission of sins through his blood.

We are not, however, left to any uncertain inference on this momentous subject. We have definite scriptural information concerning it. Peter, instructed by a vision from heaven, went from Joppa to Caesarea, where he found Cornelius, a Roman officer and a Gentile, who had been directed by a holy angel to assemble "his kinsmen and near friends," all Gentiles, to hear the words of the apostle. Peter preached the gospel to them; and while he was speaking, "the Holy Spirit fell on all them that heard the word." It was a renewal of the wonders of the day of Pentecost. The Christian Jews accompanying Peter were astonished at this effusion of the Holy Ghost on the Gentiles. They had not anticipated such a display of divine grace on behalf of the heathen. The miracle, however, was undeniable, and Peter, guided by the Spirit of inspiration, promptly saw and admitted all its consequences. He did not say: God has received these Gentiles, and they may dispense with baptism; they have received the baptism of the Holy Ghost, and water baptism can do them no good; as God has accepted them, the church also is hound to accept them. No; the events of the Pentecostal reformation had not faded from his memory. He recollected the divine order concerning? the Jews, and, seeing that it was applicable to the Gentiles, said: "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?" Their baptism was not a matter of choice, or taste, or convenience, but a solemn duty. "He commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord" (Acts 10:24-48).

There can be no good reason to suppose that, as these first Gentile converts were baptized under the immediate direction of the Holy Spirit, preparatory to church membership, other Gentiles were admitted into the churches without baptism. There surely can be no solid reason furnished why the ordinance, which was obligatory on the first and most favored converts from heathenism, is not the duty of all Gentile believers.

The apostolic churches, so far as we have definite information of their constituency, were all composed of baptized believers. Paul, writing to the saints at Rome, and classing himself among them, said: "We are buried with him (Christ) by baptism into death" (Rom. 6:4). Paul preached the gospel in Corinth, and "many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized" (Acts 18:8). These baptized believers doubtless constituted the church in that city. Writing to them afterwards, and reproving them for their divisions, he inquired, "Were ye baptized in the name of Paul?" He takes it for granted as well that they had been baptized as that they had not been baptized in the name of Paul. He had baptized Crispus and Galus and the household of Stephanas; but there is no cause to conclude that, as these members were baptized by the apostle, other members were left without the ordinance (1 Cor. 1:13-16). Moreover, Paul, in writing to the church in Corinth, after enumerating the gross vices prevalent among the Gentiles, says: "And such were some of you; but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:11). In this passage, "washed" is generally supposed by commentators to mean "baptized"; and, indeed, as distinguished from "sanctified" and "justified," we do not see what else it can mean. We may fairly conclude, then, that the church in the city of Corinth was composed exclusively of baptized persons. Lydia and her household, and the jailer and his family, who constituted the nucleus of the church at Philippi, were all baptized; and there is no ground to conclude that the other members of the church did not submit to the ordinance (Acts 16:15, 33). To the church in Colosse the apostle wrote: "Ye are?buried with him (Christ) in baptism" (Col. 2:12).

As both Jews and Gentiles were admitted into the church by baptism, as several of the churches we know were composed wholly of baptized members, and as all the churches were under the same Lord and the same law, it is clear that baptism was a condition of membership in the primitive churches.

Baptism is not essential, to salvation, but is in many cases essential to obedience, and obedience is essential to salvation. "The Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, not being baptized with the baptism of John" (Luke 6:30). Those who reject the counsel of God cannot be wise or in safety, and the apostolic baptism is not less the counsel of God than was that of John (John 15:14). Christ has made it obligatory on all who would enter his church, and that is enough to control the conduct of those who love him.

We have perhaps, unnecessarily extended this argument. No evidence, or semblance of evidence, can be furnished from the Scriptures that any person was ever received into an apostolic church without baptism, indeed, there is no point concerning which Christians of all denominations and parties are more united than in maintaining the necessity of baptism to church membership. There is no large and settled church or sect that does not make baptism a condition of admission to its privileges.

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