Review: Understanding Baptism

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Over the past six years our church has been restarted, renewed, reinvented and rebranded. At one point in this process we were a broken church trying to figure how best to be faithful to what God has called us to do. One resource which proved invaluable to us was the 9Marks organization and their efforts in publishing and producing biblical content which helps guide churches just like us. So I am really excited to see them publishing a “Church Basics” series which sorts through key church related issues in brief 100 page books.

B&H recently provided me a copy of “Understanding Baptism” by Bobby Jamieson from the Church Basics series for review. Jamieson was given a daunting task in this little piece. When discussing baptism you aren’t simply discussing when and where to place the horse tank (my Montana roots are showing). To really understand baptism you are playing a game of theological KerPlunk. Pulling on the baptism stick will affect how you view: conversion, membership, the Lord’s Supper, church discipline, and your church’s understanding of the Biblical covenantal structure. Needless to say it’s a weighty work to attempt to do all of that in 71 pages!

The little book is broken up into six chapters each answering one specific question: What is Baptism? Who Should Be baptized? What about Infant Baptism? Why is Baptism Required for Church Membership? When Is “Baptism” Not Baptism? And How Should Churches Practice Baptism?

Strengths

The structure of the book is really helpful and answers a lot of questions an average lay person might have regarding baptism. In most areas Jamieson answers hard and personal questions regarding an individual’s background in a caring and pastoral way. Which I really appreciated. The tone of this book is soft enough (even on issues of debate such as infant baptism) that I would have very little fears handing this work off to anyone in my church interested in understanding baptism better on their own.

In such a short book, Jamieson can’t spend too much time unpacking the exegetical work it takes to unpack his congregational credobaptist position (of which I am also a proponent). Yet he works carefully to stay inside the rule of faith where it needs minimal explanation and works well to provide some Biblical background in areas where there is less theological consensus.

The two strongest chapters of the book are “What is Baptism?” and “When ‘Baptism’ is Not Baptism?”. In “What is Baptism?” Jamieson walks through a wordy, but well thought out, definition of baptism as: “a church’s act of affirming and portraying a believer’s union with Christ by immersing him or her in water, and a believer’s act of publicly committing him or herself to Christ and his people, thereby uniting a believer to the church and marking him or her off from the world” (pg. 6).

“When Baptism is not Baptism?” addresses a lot of practical considerations someone in your church might have when considering their own interaction with baptism. In it he answers questions like: “What if you were baptized as an infant?” “What if you were baptized as a ‘believer’ but not yet a believer?” “What if you were baptized by a church which doesn’t believe the gospel?” Drawing from the work he has done in the previous chapters, Jamieson is able to weave together theological themes into practical considerations.

Weaknesses

Because this book is so short and covers such a broad topic, I wish Jamieson would have really narrowed in on his audience (which might have been set for him by the publisher). In the introduction the author talks about people reading this book as a lay person, or as a church leader. As a result Jamieson frequently speaks to both groups throughout the book. However I think this might actually be a hindrance because often times in trying to cater to the lay person, Jamieson holds back essential interaction between texts and theological traditions, and often times in catering to the pastor he leaves out some practical concerns which would be relevant to the lay person.

For example, despite the otherwise wonderfully practical nature of the book, Jamieson never addresses the age issue of baptism (although he does in his larger book on baptism: “Going Public”). As our church is reworking our baptism process there hasn’t been a more practical question asked more frequently than, “Can my 10 year old be baptized?” A book directed towards lay persons could have taken a couple pages to walk them through parental considerations on the matter, whereas a book towards the church leaders might have been able to summarize more thoroughly the arguments made in some of the larger works.

Another important chapter is, “Why is baptism required for Church Membership.” This chapter is needed in today’s church now more than ever. But I think it would have been more helpful to include an emphasis on the church’s mutual accountability towards one another and its implications in baptism. Because, as Jamieson rightly stresses, baptism is an “Oath-Sign” there is also a great relationship between the believer and the church to bear with one another (Eph. 4:2, Col. 3:13) as they seek to live lives shaped by their baptismal proclamation. It was not uncommon for New Testament authors to appeal to baptism when dealing with actions (Rom. 6:1-3). This connection between baptism and Christian living highlights the responsibility of the church to “covenant” together in order to fulfill their “oath-sign.”

Conclusion

Most of the weakness of this book boil down to the nature of this series. It emphasizes brevity and concise theology for the masses. This is good and needed. The side effects can easily be remedied by pastoral care and other resources. But this book can be a great help for pastors and lay people who want to start thinking deeply on baptism.

For pastors reading this book, you need not agree with everything Jamieson says to benefit from it. But you do need to wrestle with his conclusions. I have benefited greatly from the questions which this book proposes, which I myself was never forced to consider! This process is good for the pastor, for the Christian and for the congregation.

 

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