A Letter on Baptism

by Sherry Jones

"Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty reigns." Rev 19:6b


As a non-Mennonite, I came to the writings of the leaders of the Reformation Anabaptists (from hereon out for the sake of brevity, the "RA's") with little knowledge of who they were or what they believed. As an outsider I knew only of the Catholic/Lutheran conflict during that historical time period, especially since my background included Catholicism. If there was any preconceived notion in my mind, it would have been that the RA's were just like modern Mennonites in their thinking and beliefs. What an astounding surprise it was to find quite the contrary!

Not only did I discover that the two groups (RA's & moderns) believed differently about baptism and its Biblical value, but that interpretations of various passages were so very different. I had heard moderns even scoff at anyone who saw water baptism in passages such as Rom 6 or Col 2;12,13, yet the RA's freely connected the two. This was astounding to me. In their denunciations, did moderns not realize that they were denouncing their forefathers? Another difference was that Mennonites today so often separate spirit and water baptism; whereas, the RA's saw them as one comprehensive "package" if I may use this term. Thus it was that the denunciations and the contrasting interpretations motivated my producing the large compilation that I entitled, "The Anabaptists Address the Subject of Water Baptism."

I noticed, also, that moderns, in their evangelistic tracts (like those coming out of Rod & Staff), often reflect just the general Protestant view of salvation - much like Baptists, Assembly of God, etc. Faith and repentance are taught - and this is Scriptural and good - as far as it goes. However, in my readings of the RA's I'm convinced that they would never have stopped at faith and repentance but would have called the individual to water baptism too for salvation - seeing it as yet another essential part of calling a person to Christ. I can't help but think that the RA's would have viewed modern Mennonite conversion theology as similar to Reformed belief with baptism having little or no relevance except as a command to be obeyed and as an initiatory rite into the local church.

To describe my findings, I shall first mention Michael Sattler since he was highly spoken of in the first Eastern Mennonite group I came to know and his story was the first I was to read of Anabaptist history. It was there I received my first hint that the belief of the RA's might actually be like my own rather than that of modern day Mennonitism. Was this true? Or was I just imagining things? My thoughts eventually seemed confirmed when I later read the book The Life and Thoughts of Michael Sattler by C. Arnold Snyder. Below are some of his summations of Sattler's beliefs and those of the Reformation Anabaptists.

"Sattler makes it clear that the favored Anabaptist text concerning baptism, Mark 16:16, is in fact the cornerstone of his separatist ecclesiology. Faith and baptism are two inseparable aspects of one essential response of man before God's saving act. The act of baptism cannot be understood apart from faith, nor can faith be understood apart from the act of baptism." (113)

"Faith and baptism are simply two aspects of one response..." (112)

"Belief and baptism again open the door to salvation, and lead directly into the pure community of the saints." (118)

"Sattler considered both the inward faith and the outward act of water baptism to be essential for salvation." (129)

So I wasn't imagining things. Arnold Snyder, too, in reading the writings of Sattler, saw how baptism to the Anabaptists was of great value....a value that I fear many modern Mennonites would declare heretical.

I next came to the writings of Menno Simons contained in the book The Complete Works. Initially I struggled with seemingly contradictory statements made by Menno. On one page he'd state that baptism was for the remission of sins; on another it was not. Then I realized the key to understanding Menno's writings on this subject. His discourses were directed towards infant baptism - of which there was no faith nor repentance. Therefore this sort of "baptism" could not be linked to remission of sins or any other spiritual blessing - water has no saving power. However, adults coming to the water with the required response of faith and repentance could expect remission of sins as a promise of God to their commitment to Christ in baptism. In fact, Menno said, in regards to water baptism, that "so many glorious promises are attached thereto, as may plainly be seen and read"(349). Of course, as we would agree, the promises come only through water baptism on account of the inner heart's response to God through faith and repentance first. Yet, many Mennonites today, I believe, would discount the truth that any spiritual promise, like remission of sins, could possibly be linked to water baptism. They would only link them to faith and repentance. The Reformation Anabaptists did not do so.

It was interesting as I read of Menno's order of Christ's commands or ordinances. "First, there must be the preaching of the Gospel of Christ (Matt 28:19); then, the hearing of the divine Word (Rom 10:17); thirdly, faith by hearing the Word (Rom 10:17); fourthly, there must be the new birth by faith; fifthly, baptism out of the new birth (Titus 3:5), in obedience to God's work; and then follows the promise (265)." And this spiritual promise? Salvation, for he goes on to say, "from these things [faith and baptism] follows the promise.....shall be saved. Mark 16." (266)

As well as salvation in general, he specifically saw the promise of remission of sins connected to water baptism. He said, "...we receive remission of our sins when we are true believers and are washed and cleansed in baptism. Through the promise, I say, not through the (physical) washing of water, for it is not merit, but through the promise" (245).

First, Menno saw no problem placing the promise of salvation after baptism and not just after faith. And he saw no problem including among the glorious promises of God our being washed and cleansed in water baptism or receiving the remission of sins.

He did clarify for the reader, however, that this spiritual washing away of sins and the promises of salvation could not come apart from genuine faith and repentance - that water alone could not accomplish salvation. And of course, this was the key argument against infant baptism - a perverted "baptism" that the Catholic Church practiced as well as the Reformers. I couldn't agree with him more.

Dirk Phillips also saw God giving the promise of salvation to those who are washed or baptized. In referring to Titus 3:4, he said, "These words of Paul are interpreted by some to mean the baptism of the Spirit. That may be so. Nevertheless, they may also be scripturally understood as referring to external baptism. The reason: baptism is a waterbath because it is administered with water to believers in the name of the Lord. But since the phrase 'in the word' stands alongside of it, this shows that baptism is not a simple washing but rather is attached to the gospel and faith with the promise that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, Mark 16:[16]." (79)

If then, the Anabaptists saw water baptism so connected to faith, the gospel and the promise of salvation, it explains so clearly why they would then risk even death to be baptized and clothed with Christ.

The next leader of the Anabaptist movement that I became acquainted with was Pilgram Marpeck. He spoke beautifully of baptism being "a betrothal or a marital union between the believer and Christ"(186). And to those in our day who discount a study on baptism, thinking it would simply be "majoring on minors," Pilgram's reply would be that it "should be carefully studied and understood" (186). Why? In his thought, "when the one baptizing and the one who is baptized use baptism in a different spirit than used by the apostles, and with a different intention than Christ commanded and the apostles used it, then they are committing a sin and abusing baptism. Those who do so will not be able to escape the punishment of God, especially after the truth has been confessed and the abused cannot be evaded" (203).

He saw baptism as being a part of the comprehensive heart response to God, saying, "Consequently, Christ also says: 'He who believes and is baptized will be saved. (Mark 16:16)' For it is not enough to be purified and united through faith. The old life must also be removed and buried. Now the burying of the flesh shall take place through baptism" (190).

Hubmaier, Grebel and Philips also saw baptism with a higher spiritual value to it than many Mennonites see today. Grebel even participated in many immersions in the Sitter River. And risked his life in doing so. I guess that was the bottom line in all this. The Anabaptists placed a high spiritual value on baptism and so believed that this was the thought of God on the matter that they were willing to risk life and limb to follow through on what they saw as Biblical conversion. With such a high value placed on baptism, they were willing to pay the high price for the promise of God - and consequently, so many went to their deaths. Yes, the Anabaptists clashed with the Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed on other issues, but by and large, baptism seemed to be the key teaching that brought about so much controversy.

As we all know from the Reformation, Scriptural baptism was abused and denied, both by those baptizing infants as well as by the Spiritualists who were all too ready to throw out any outward ordinances. Baptism is still being abused and denied, and this is why Menno's and Dirk's words in the compilation, "The Abuse of Baptism" still ring clear today. This century still sees large denominations "baptizing" babies. Abuse is also seen by those who strip baptism of the beautiful promises of God and relegate it to a simple act of membership. It is also abused by those who would baptize adults and yet do almost the same as the baby baptizers, misunderstanding or discounting faith and repentance, lifting up water baptism to a degree that the act itself supposedly removes their sins, placing them in good standing with God. And yet their hearts are in love with the world. All three are perverted ceremonies.

Yet, I wonder if we can still hold fast to a Biblical view of conversion today in spite of the surrounding perversions. The Anabaptists seemed to have been able to do it, though they took a beating in the process. The key, I think, is still in how we view the act that God has instituted. Menno saw the "rite of baptism" as a "matter so serious" (229), one in which concerns our "poor naked souls which have been so dearly bought and redeemed by such a precious treasure" (247). Pilgram saw the matter as equally important when he stated that "baptism is a superbly earnest matter which pertains even to our salvation." (217)

How do we view baptism today? Have we simply accepted the current Protestant view of it - so emphasizing faith and repentance that we work at discounting baptism's rightful place? Or can we be honest enough to accept, as the Anabaptists seemed to do, that baptism does have a prominent place in the coming together of God and man. A time in which as Pilgram Marpeck says, "Believers are sanctified in Christ, and in the power of faith, they are totally cleansed." Would we embrace Romans 6:3-7 as Dirk Phillips did, understanding that in this passage, "the apostle [Paul] gives us to understand what Christian baptism means to the believer, namely, the dying of the flesh or putting to death the old Adam, the burial of sins, the putting off of the sinful body, and a resurrection to a new life" (75)? Or shall we discount this and cry out, "Faith only!" Or shall we voice a concern as Dirk did when he stated that, "where the baptism of Christ is not practiced properly, how shall one then be baptized into Christ Jesus, unto his death and added to the fellowship of his body through the Holy Spirit (Rom 6:3)?"

Shall we continue to discount the value of baptism and in our own thinking strip it of all or most of its significance and place it only as a simple rite of membership into a local group? Would we risk suffering and death to be baptized? If it has little or no spiritual value, then it may not be worth being hassled over - certainly not enough to lose farm, family or life itself over.

I, personally, would rather support the teachings of the Reformation Anabaptists on the subject of baptism as their views on this seem to so beautifully harmonize with the Scriptures. Though I may differ with them on other matters, on the subject of baptism I believe they gave it its rightful place in God's plan of redemption. God instituted baptism with a purpose and plan and I believe that the Reformation Anabaptists understood why He called for it - understanding as well the need for faith in the heart and a willingness to forsake sin and worldliness to live for Christ and His Kingdom instead.

I was richly blessed reading the writings of the Anabaptists though initially surprised by my findings. I continue to be encouraged by their example and find still their writings to be a source of great strength and inspiration.



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June 22, 2000