the shape of leadership

What We Believe About Water Baptism

A series on the AG Statement of Fundamental Truths

Allen Tennison on February 28, 2024

The first time I performed a water baptism as a pastor, I almost killed a man.

Our church had a built-in baptistry with room for only one person. The minister stood outside the baptistry and leaned over a partition. Each individual being baptized sat on a stool in the water.

The first person I baptized was a man named John. He was 6 feet, 6 inches tall and almost as wide. Because he had a bad back and could not sit up by himself, John was nervous about going under the water. I assured him I would be there.

When I lowered John into the water, however, my arm got caught beneath him. His bulk lifted me off my feet, and I could not get enough leverage to bring him up.

By the time I regained my footing, congregants had started rushing the platform. When I finally raised John out of the water, he audibly gasped for air.

The congregation cheered and clapped — not only because John was baptized, but also because he was alive.

We always have a reason to celebrate when someone is baptized in water. It means they are spiritually alive and beginning a new life in Christ.

Water baptism also represents dying to all that does not belong to the Christian life. To understand the meaning of water baptism is to understand the life to which we are called in Christ Jesus.


Baptism as Ordinance

“The Ordinances of the Church,” Article 6 in the Assemblies of God Statement of Fundamental Truths, covers both water baptism and Communion.

The word “ordinance” was present in the Statement of Fundamental Truths from the beginning. This is significant because Protestants intentionally use “ordinance” in place of “sacrament.”

So, why not call water baptism and Communion sacraments? The term “sacrament” comes from Latin sacramentum, which carried with it the idea of sacredness and could refer to a deposit or even an oath to prove allegiance. Sacraments became associated with reciting creeds, which often accompanied water baptism.

The Latin New Testament also translated the Greek mysterion as sacramentum. Mysterion, or “mystery,” appears in Paul’s writings, referring to things that would remain hidden unless God revealed them. Many uses refer to God’s revelation of divine mystery through Christ (Romans 16:25; Ephesians 1:9; 3:4; 5:32; 6:19).

Over time, sacramentum, or sacrament, came to denote physical signs or symbols with spiritual meanings in the Church, including specific practices like water baptism.

The theology as to what took place during a sacrament developed gradually. At first, sacraments were understood as enacted signs that both reflected God’s grace and marked allegiance to, or faith in, Christ.

Eventually, some interpreted sacraments as not just representing grace, but imparting it.

During the Middle Ages, the Church identified seven practices as sacraments: water baptism, confirmation, Communion, penance or confession, marriage, ordination, and anointing the sick.

Protestants reduced this to two, water baptism and Communion, even while acknowledging the importance of such practices as marriage, ordination, and anointing the sick.

What makes water baptism and Communion special is their reflection of the gospel and direct links to Christ’s commands. Because Jesus ordained these practices, we call them ordinances. For Protestants, this term also made it easier to distinguish their theology.

Many Protestants denied sacraments as a source of grace but saw them as a means of appropriating God’s grace by faith. Still others returned to the earlier sense of a sign or symbol that represents, but does not impart, grace.

The Assemblies of God identifies water baptism and Communion as ordinances that symbolize the grace we have already received, declare our faith, and remind us of the good news.

As ordinances, water baptism and Communion are not optional. Through them, we participate physically and spiritually in Jesus’ story. We see, touch, and taste tangible representations of the gospel.

Communion involves elements we hold, while baptism takes place in an element that holds us. Through these ordinances, we embrace, and are embraced by, the gospel.

The administration of ordinances combines elements and ceremony in a community event that fulfills Christ’s commands, proclaims the gospel, and binds the Church together.

Christians throughout history have regarded the ordinances as essential practices for Church worship. As an act of worship, the ordinances celebrate God’s redemptive provision through Christ and anticipate His restorative promise through the Spirit. In corporate worship, ordinances bind us together as family members sharing a common journey through the water and common meal.


Biblical Basis

The paragraph on “Baptism in Water” in Article 6 takes three positions regarding water baptism. First, “baptism by immersion is commanded in the Scriptures.” As an ordinance, water baptism is a command for all believers.

Jesus himself was baptized, in submission to the Father’s will, and afterward received the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:15–17). In this act, Jesus identified with God’s people.

To understand the meaning of water baptism is to understand the life
to which we are
called in Christ Jesus.

Many scholars see Jesus’ water baptism and subsequent temptation as a reenactment of Israel’s experience from the Red Sea through the wilderness. Where the children of Israel failed, Jesus succeeded.

Jesus’ water baptism also provides an example for the Church.

In Matthew 28:19–20, Jesus sent His disciples to make disciples of all nations by going, baptizing, and teaching.

Upon hearing the good news of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost, the crowd asked, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter responded, “Repent and be baptized” (verse 38).

As the Church spread in Acts, those who received the gospel were baptized in water (Acts 8:12–13; 9:18; 10:47–48; 16:15,33; 18:8; 19:5). The command of Christ, the call of Peter, and the example of Jesus and the Church stress the necessity of water baptism.


Baptismal Formula

According to Scripture, water baptism involves both spoken words and a physical element.

In words. The Great Commission calls for baptizing “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Yet many examples of water baptism in Acts simply mention Jesus’ name (2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5). Some have debated the formula for water baptism in light of this seeming discrepancy.

Does the Great Commission take precedence as the words of Jesus? Or should we follow Luke’s description of Church practice in Acts?

In the early days of the Assemblies of God, some people underwent rebaptism in water because they doubted the sufficiency of their earlier baptism using a different formula.

The paragraph on “Baptism in Water” does not answer the question as to wording, but the Statement of Fundamental Truths rejects any teaching that denies the Trinity or the deity of Jesus as a member of the Trinity.

Believers in the Book of Acts were baptized in Jesus’ name as a profession of Christian faith (distinguishing the act from other kinds of baptisms).

In making disciples, we are also called to baptize in a way that distinguishes our faith from others. By baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are confessing more about our faith in Jesus, who was sent from the Father and now sends us the Spirit. Water baptism in the name of the Trinity is a full-gospel baptism.

By water. Article 6 does specify immersion as the method of baptism. The Greek word for baptize, baptizo, means “to overwhelm.” In the ancient world, the word was even used to describe drownings or shipwrecks.

Possibly inspired by the practice of Gentile converts to Judaism, John the Baptist called people to baptism as a sign of repentance in preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom and Messiah.

Water baptism by full immersion was the practice of the New Testament Church.

Over time, the Church began water baptizing in other ways, including sprinkling and pouring. Originally, these were exceptions to the rule due to unusual circumstances, such as Christians requesting baptism on their deathbeds.

Parents also began bringing sick infants for baptism in preparation for their deaths. The practice of baptizing babies, called pedobaptism, eventually became a standard practice, as did sprinkling with water.

One early Christian tradition involved praying for people to receive the Spirit at the time of water baptism. As it became increasingly common to baptize babies, however, this prayer was reserved for a later time. Eventually, the practice of confirming the baptized emerged from this and became a sacrament on its own.

Today, other methods (such as pouring) are commonly associated with infant baptism, while baptism by immersion is generally associated with the baptism of believers.

The Assemblies of God practices baptism of believers by immersion.


Baptism of Believers

Going into the Middle Ages, theologians defended pedobaptism based on a sacramental understanding of baptism and a strong view of original sin.

Believing all newborns inherited the guilt of Adam and Eve, these theologians concluded only grace imparted through water baptism could secure their salvation. Their assumption was that unbaptized babies dying in infancy would go to hell.

Some Protestants then and now rejected this teaching but kept the practice of infant baptism.

Others rejected pedobaptism altogether, not only due to a lack of direct scriptural support, but also because of the New Testament model of baptism for believers who repent and express faith in Jesus.

The earliest Protestants to adopt the latter view were called Anabaptists. This name came from their critics, and it was telling. Because Anabaptists were baptizing adults who had already been baptized as babies, some condemned their practice as rebaptism, or “anabaptism.”

For the Anabaptists, however, the only real baptism was when someone personally chose it. If they were correct, it would invalidate the baptisms of everyone who had been initiated into the Church this way as babies. It was a threatening position that cost many Anabaptists their lives.

Baptizing believers rather than babies — a practice also known as credobaptism, or the believer’s baptism — continued in other traditions, including Baptist and Pentecostal churches.

The Assemblies of God rejects pedobaptism in favor of credobaptism. Article 6 states baptism in water is a command for those who “repent and believe on Christ as Savior and Lord.” Rather than a necessary step for salvation, water baptism is reserved for those who have already turned to God by faith.

This believer’s baptism carries with it an assumption about the nature of the ordinances, the Church, the state, and even human integrity.

By baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
we are confessing
more about our faith
in Jesus, who was
sent from the Father and now sends us the Spirit.

If only believers are baptized, the ordinance is for those who have already received grace.

Baptism is a representation, but not an impartation, of grace. If only believers can be baptized, and only the baptized are full members of the Church, then Christianity is a choice, not a birthright.

Anabaptists faced significant persecution from Catholics and other Protestants because their view of baptism threatened the authority of state and church leaders.

If the Church is a gathered community rather than a given one, there can be no state church. Baptism and belonging to Christ are matters of belief, not earthly citizenship. Credobaptism implies our own country should not be regarded as a Christian community in itself because all its citizens are not baptized into a Christian community. You can be born a citizen but, to be a Christian, you must be “born again” (John 3:3).

The believer’s baptism respects an individual’s decision to follow Christ. One of the earliest references to infant baptism comes from the second century theologian Tertullian, who complained such a practice violated the command of Jesus to let the children come to Him. According to Tertullian, parents choosing baptism for their children hindered them from coming to Jesus on their own.

Many AG churches have allowed people who were baptized as babies to be baptized as believers so they can choose baptism for themselves.

Some have questioned whether water baptism can be repeated for those who were already baptized as believers. The Assemblies of God has strongly rejected the rebaptism of believers based on formulas, especially if the rebaptism was understood to be a rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Ministers have sometimes rebaptized believers who left the faith and returned, especially if the believer felt the need to make a new public declaration for Jesus.

Leaders must be careful not to treat a believer’s baptism as insufficient for a lifetime, though. Believers who go through the water the first time must understand it is meant to be the last time.


Meaning of Baptism

Theologian Peter Leithart said this about baptism:

Talk about baptism, and you’re immediately plunged into arguments. Whom should we baptize — professing converts or infants? How should we baptize — by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling? Why do we baptize — as a sign of God’s claim or as a convert’s public confession? What does baptism do — nothing, something, everything? If it does something, how long does it last — for a minute, forever? … The church has one baptism, as it is one body with one Spirit, one Lord, one hope, one faith, and one Father (Ephesians 4:4–6). Yet God’s sign of unity is a spring of division.

Article 6 prescribes water baptism by immersion for all who have already repented and believed. It also identifies water baptism as a means by which believers “declare to the world that they have died with Christ and that they also have been raised with Him to walk in newness of life.”

The Assemblies of God has a position on water baptism, and for good reasons, but understanding our position is not nearly as important as appreciating water baptism itself.

Before Jesus began His public ministry, the practice of water baptism represented a cleansing or purification within Judaism, an image still found in the New Testament (Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 3:21).

As the initial ceremony in joining a Christian community, water baptism found new meaning through identification with Jesus in His death, burial, and resurrection.

The apostle Paul described water baptism as a union with Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3–4).

In Galatians 3:27, Paul compared water baptism to being clothed with Jesus — taking on His life in place of the old life of sin. Passing through the waters of baptism, we announce our death to sin and resurrection to a new life in Jesus.

Water baptism also serves as a sign of our incorporation into the body of Christ. As baptized believers, we have all identified with Christ in this way. That shared experience binds us together as a community.

While water baptism is not salvific in itself, it does signify a common identity in which we all participate. Water baptism brings us into a community of the baptized who were called together in Christ Jesus.

Every water baptism following faith and repentance is a baptism from death to life within a community of faith.

Water baptism signifies our dying to past sins and acknowledges Christ’s death for our forgiveness. It proclaims our new life and anticipates our resurrected life, for which Christ rose from the dead.

We celebrate water baptism because, when we come out of the water, we are alive!


Pastoral Practice

As an ordinance, water baptism plays a central role in the life of the Church. Consider how water baptism impacts each of the following four ministry areas in your church.

1. Preaching and teaching. There are three times when teaching or preaching on water baptism is essential: when explaining why people should be baptized, when instructing baptismal candidates, and when celebrating water baptisms as part of congregational worship.

Such teaching should emphasize the reason for water baptism as obedience to Jesus, the meaning as identification with Christ, the act as a public declaration of faith, and the context as a community of baptized believers (which has now increased by at least one).

Baptismal candidates should understand God has already received them, but water baptism makes their commitment evident to all.

As an ordinance signifying a lasting commitment, water baptism is sufficient for a lifetime. Thus, preaching and teaching should clarify Christians do not need a second baptism.

Emphasize the role of relationships in water baptism. There is the relationship between those who are baptized and the One with whom they identify. There are also relationships between these individuals and the community of believers. This includes the one administering the baptism and those bearing witness to it.

We should not expect much time to pass between conversion, water baptism, and baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Baptized believers belong to a community of people who have all made the same public declaration of belonging to Jesus. In this way, we belong to one another as well.

2. Worship. Water baptism should be an established part of your congregation’s worship.

They don’t have to be a weekly occurrence, but water baptisms should happen with some regularity.

Some churches struggle with making this a regular practice because they seldom have converts to baptize. A commitment to offering water baptism on a regular basis will bring to light the need for greater evangelism and outreach. That is helpful on its own.

Other churches may feel limited by their facilities. For example, not every church has a baptistry. However, churches through the years have found many innovative ways to make water baptism possible.

House churches may use bathtubs and swimming pools. Some churches utilize troughs or other portable containers — even large trashcans.

Others have taken congregants to a body of water. For example, the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles had no baptistry but made monthly trips to the Pacific Ocean for baptisms. If we can access water, we can baptize believers.

Some pastors don’t have regular water baptisms because they want to create a big event. Therefore, they wait until they have a large crowd to baptize.

A word of caution is in order here. Waiting too long to baptize new believers hinders them from taking the next biblical step in their faith. At some point, we may be standing in the way of people who are eager to honor and obey God (Acts 8:36).

The ordinance of water baptism is important enough to accommodate if there is even one person to baptize. It may be tempting to think a larger event will make a bigger impression. However, the best way to promote baptism is by making it a regular part of worship gatherings — regardless of the numbers.

Baptizing people in water is what the Church does. It is not optional because Christ commands it.

3. Discipleship. As a symbol of dying to sin and starting a new life in Christ, water baptism plays an ongoing role in discipleship.

When counseling and ministering to believers who are struggling, refer to their baptism. Remind them of their public commitment to Jesus and His commitment to them. Their baptism declares they are dead to old ways of thinking and acting.

For example, I have counseled congregants who left behind a violent past. Although their spiritual lives changed, the problems to which they previously responded with violence did not go away.

I reminded these individuals that when they were baptized, the old ways of behaving stayed beneath the water. Violence was no longer an option for them.

Further, I explained that responding like Christ was an option. Christlike behavior wasn’t possible for them before they were saved, but baptism symbolized total surrender and a new life in Jesus.

Because I treated water baptism with respect when I first taught it to these converts, they still respected what it meant when making tough choices. Our church’s ongoing celebration of water baptisms reinforced this commitment to live like Jesus.

Even congregants who have been serving Christ a long time may need reminders about what water baptism entails and what it still means for them.

An AG leader writing in the Pentecostal Evangel during 1919 encouraged readers to remember their water baptism because it “is a great aid to faith to look back to the place where you were ‘buried with Christ in baptism unto death:’ and when the enemy, ‘like a spiritist medium, tries to bring up the ghost of your old man,’ as we heard one brother say, you can point him to the place where the thing was buried. Henceforth Christ is our life, and He is more than a match for the enemy.”

By regularly incorporating water baptism into worship and teaching your congregation to value it as a way of identifying with Christ, you can establish this ordinance as a touchstone for every believer.

4. Emphasizing Pentecostal distinctives. Practicing water baptism can also lead to a renewed emphasis on baptism in the Holy Spirit.

As Pentecostals, we believe in both water baptism and Spirit baptism. Despite their proximity in Acts, though, we do not always appreciate them together.

The Book of Acts does not present a fixed rule of order regarding baptisms. In many cases, baptism in the Spirit came after water baptism. Yet in the story of Cornelius, water baptism took place immediately after Spirit baptism (Acts 10:47–48).

Many churches have connected the practice of water baptism with the practice of Spirit baptism. For some Christians in the Early Church, the first prayer after water baptism was a prayer for baptism in the Holy Spirit.

When we neglect one baptism as part of our regular worship, we may be charting a course for neglecting the other. There are churches today that wait too long to celebrate water baptism, while also delegating prayers for Spirit baptism to camps outside of regular worship gatherings.

We should not expect much time to pass between conversion, water baptism, and baptism in the Holy Spirit.

If we renew our commitment to making water baptism a regular practice during worship, we can do the same for seeing people baptized in the Holy Spirit. Anyone who has repented and believed should be experiencing both, and celebration of both should be a regular occurrence in our gatherings.


This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Influence magazine.

Don't miss an issue, subscribe today!

Trending Articles

Advertise   Privacy Policy   Terms   About Us   Submission Guidelines  

Influence Magazine & The Healthy Church Network
© 2024 Assemblies of God