Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances that have been given by God to the covenant community of believers in the local church. They are not mere rituals or traditions lacking meaning or significance. In fact, they have been given as distinguishing marks of the church and for her growth and maturity. Baptism is a church ordinance which has a two-fold purpose—it allows a believer of Christ, to make a public confession of an inward faith and profession of union with Christ. It also allows the church to affirm this person’s understanding of the Gospel and welcome him or her to covenant fellowship through church membership. Communion is a church ordinance, by which believers who are part of that covenant community in a local church, gather together and partake of the communion emblems—the bread and the cup, remembering Jesus’s sacrifice whilst proclaiming his death and resurrection until he comes again.
Jesus Christ, the founder and foundation of the church, did not ordain these ordinances as a means of salvation because if he did, then Christianity would become a religion of works. The basic tenet of the Christian faith is that of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. We who place our faith in Christ, practise these ordinances not as a means of salvation or gaining merit with God, but rather because we have already received the free gift of salvation through grace. So, we can say that Baptism and the Lord’s supper are an outcome of conversion and show evidence of faith, obedience and submission to God.
When we look at the biblical basis for Baptism in the New Testament, we see that this is something Jesus himself modelled for us. Although, he did not need to be baptised because he was sinless and needed no forgiveness from God, he chose to be baptised willingly to fulfil God’s purposes (Matt 3:13–17). If Jesus himself chose to go through the act of baptism, how much more should we, who are sinners by nature and choice and needing God’s mercy and forgiveness, follow him in that act of baptism. In Acts 2:38, Apostle Peter tells the crowd gathered in Jerusalem to repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of sins. Romans 6:4 says that through the act of baptism and being immersed in the water, we symbolically show how we have died to our sinful life, and the act of coming out of the water symbolises being raised with Christ from death, having received a new and transformed life in and through Him.
The danger, however, is that one could go through the waters of baptism and even make a public confession yet remain unchanged in their heart. Baptism, therefore, has to be a definite and determined step of obedience even as one publicly confesses before God and in the presence of the church that he/she has died to their old life and has begun a new life through faith in Christ. As believers, our ongoing mandate found in the Great Commission, is to make disciples of people, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all of God’s commands. To this end, Baptism is an oath of initiation into membership in the covenant community of the body of Christ—the local church. The Lord’s Supper is an oath of renewal by which we commit ourselves anew to Christ and his new covenant.
So, what do these ordinances achieve for the believer who is part of the church? First, they bring about unity among the members of the church around a common pivot point—the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It reminds us that we are sinners and deserving recipients of God’s wrath and judgement. However, Christ demonstrated his love for us and died for us (Rom 5:8) and made a way for us to be reconciled to the Father. We are now adopted into his family (Ephesians 1:5), children of God and co-heirs with Christ (Rom 8:16–17;1, Jn 3:1). Second, it also seeks to bring about sanctity and purity in the body of Christ. Baptism is a means of a believer professing his/her faith in Christ and the church’s affirmation of the same. One who is baptised is admitted into covenant membership into the local church and shares in the covenant with every other believer in the church. They now have a God-given responsibility to care for and protect the local church from false teaching, heresy and division and to keep the bride of Christ pure, undefiled and blameless. Third, it separates the church from the world. We are no longer part of the world neither do we think or act like the world does. We who are washed clean, sanctified and purified in the blood of Jesus, have been set apart and have become holy unto the Lord (1 Peter 2:9). Fourth, it preserves the church from those with ungodly and sinful behaviour. Through the biblical mandate of church discipline (Matthew 16:13–20; 18:15:20; 1 Cor 5:1–5), the responsibility for admonition, correction, rebuke and reproof is rightly brought back into the hands of the covenanted body of Christ in the local church. Finally, it builds fellowship, accountability and deep relationship with each other. The act of affirming one’s faith and understanding of the Gospel and their consequent acceptance into the church family, is a sign of solidarity and oneness that the Gospel alone brings. Our responsibility for spiritual maturity no longer is in our own striving as individuals, but the onus is on the whole body growing and maturing the whole body (Ephesians 4:12,16).
However, we see that in many churches around the world, these ordinances are seen as mere traditions and practised ritualistically. Baptism often becomes a means to bolstering church membership without confirming one’s inner conversion and profession of true faith. The outward confession of faith becomes a mere show to gain church membership or some privileges from the local church. The true understanding of these ordinances and their practise is incorrectly understood and there is a lot of ignorance and confusion about it within the body of Christ.
In a country like India and in many other countries in the world, where Christianity is a minority religion, a temptation for churches and mission agencies is to compel a believer to get baptised without correctly assessing true conversion. Such unbiblical methods may put numbers on a missionary’s report or names on a church’s membership roll but would fail to add them to the Kingdom of God. It would create a Christianity that is a mile wide, but only an inch deep. Such people will be drawn into the church, not by devotion, love and surrender but through a desire for power, fame and popularity. Many are drawn in by prosperity teaching and some others for signs and miracles and to experience their best life now. These wrong motives create consumeristic and superficial Christians and not self-denying, cross-carrying, totally surrendered disciples of Jesus. The sad reality is that there are many who recant their faith or get shaken up by the storms of life.
A deep-seated, biblically authentic understanding of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper that comes about through a faithful exposition of God’s word, creates a passionate impetus for mission and evangelism. Even as we consider that the mandate to baptise is part of the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20), we must strive to keep that mission at the forefront of our minds and priorities. Each time we see baptisms happening in the local church, it is a reminder that this is God’s redemptive and transformative work in people’s lives. We who have been given this commission to evangelise and make disciples of all nations should take that privilege seriously. And as believers who participate in the Lord’s Supper, we ought to be reminded that we who have received forgiveness of sin and the hope of an abundant life with God, should move out of our comfort zone, knowing there are many who have not given their lives to Christ and put their faith and trust in Him yet. There are many who are not part of the covenant community within the local church and each time we participate in these ordinances, God’s love and burden for the lost should become ours, and motivate us to continue to share the good news with greater passion and a sense of urgency.
When effective discipleship happens, baptisms follow and when baptisms occur, converts are added to the local church and the church grows in its health and vision. Those who are welcomed in can participate in these ordinances and remember Christ’s sacrifice and lift their hearts to him in love and adoration. The outcome is the worship of God in spirit and truth. It is high time that local churches everywhere, resist the forces that seek to divide and destroy them and be united in the right understanding and biblically faithful practice of these church ordinances and even as they do, let it be a stark reminder of the need for urgent mobilisation of resources and people for the cause of the Great Commission and its grand realisation. Let’s pray to the Lord of the harvest so that he can give us a greater vision and desire that we disciple and mature people, baptise them and invite them to fellowship around the Lord’s table and by doing that we are fulfilling God’s Kingdom mandate and bringing glory and honour to Him and Him alone.