What does Mennonite Brethren theology have in common with that of other Christian denominations? And what are the distinctive emphases of Mennonite Brethren theology? Our Confession of Faith is a short document, informed by Scripture, that names the perspectives through which we read God’s Word in order to live as Christ’s followers. This is the eighth article in a series by the Board of Faith and Life exploring the 18 articles of this formative document.
Two kinds of baptism, one kind of faith
What do you remember about your baptism? Few occasions are as joyous for churches as baptisms. They are celebrations of rebirth, commitment, and incorporation.
But sometimes baptism’s meaning is confused.
To understand Christian baptism, we must set it apart from what preceded it.
For instance, liturgical washings were part of Old Testament practice. Also, proselytes to Judaism were baptized. Prior to Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist taught a baptism of repentance.
But the church doesn’t draw on these symbols in our practice.
Confusion regarding Christian baptism occurs when we fail to see the two distinct aspects of New Testament baptism: Spirit baptism and water baptism.
Regarding these, Menno Simons wrote, “we teach, seek and desire a right, christian (sic) baptism; first, with Spirit and fire, (Luke 3:16) afterward in the water, in obedience to faith.”
Spirit baptism – of, by, and with – the Holy Spirit occurs when we enter God’s Kingdom through faith. This new birth is the work of the Spirit (John 3:5–8). As John said, Jesus’ baptism would be with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11).
Through this spiritual birth, we are baptized into Christ and filled by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). We have died with him and are raised up to new life in him (Romans 6:3–5; Colossians 2:12).
In Christ, we have no condemnation, we have forgiveness of sins, and we are a new creation (Romans 8:1; Ephesians 1:7; 2 Corinthians 5:17). It is by being baptized into Christ by the Holy Spirit that we become children of God (Galatians 3:26–27).
Water baptism follows faith in Christ. Whereas the Holy Spirit is the agent of spiritual baptism, the community of the Spirit performs water baptism. Physical baptism symbolizes the spiritual baptism that took place when we repented and trusted Jesus for salvation.
People who have been joined to Christ by the Spirit through faith and desire to follow him in life declare that publicly by receiving water baptism (Acts 2:41). They are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit (Matthew 28:19; Acts 19:3–5).
Water baptism is an ordinance that Christ’s followers request (Acts 8:36). It becomes an outward symbol of an inward reality and holds meaning for those who have experienced spiritual baptism (Acts 10:47; 16:32–34). As such, water baptism is a not only a visible sign that we have repented of sins and been reborn, but declares that we have given our life to Jesus and now belong to him.
Mennonite Brethren view water baptism as a public confession of faith (Acts 18:8). In receiving it, we testify that we have placed our faith in Jesus and declare allegiance to him and his reign.
Initiation to community
But equally important is our conviction that water baptism serves as an initiation into the community of God’s people. For this reason, when people get baptized, their baptism is a solemn pledge to live in covenant with Jesus and his people (1 Corinthians 12:13).
This is why Mennonite Brethren congregations typically welcome newly baptized people into formal membership of the local church. Both the individual and the body of believers promise to help each other love and serve God and one another faithfully. They commit to walking together in the way of Christ through the power of the Spirit to fulfill the mission of God.
As such, baptism is an act of obedience for all who follow Jesus.
Taking this step of faith and submission to the Lord Jesus is a vital part of discipleship.
Together Spirit(ual) and water baptism describe Christian baptism. They give meaning to life in Christ, membership within community, and serving God in the world. They are distinct, but fully linked. Without the former, the latter is meaningless and, without the latter, the former is incomplete.
[Laurence Hiebert is pastor at Mountainview Grace Church, Calgary, and an Alberta representative on the Board of Faith and Life.