December 17, 2017

Baptist Fundamentals – The Significance of the Ordinances

Emory W. Hunt, D. D., LL. D.
President of Bucknell University

I need not enumerate them. In this company I need spend no time on the reasons why we do not include among the ordinances ordination, marriage, feet-washing, and the laying-on of hands. It is perfectly clear that from the earliest days the entrance upon the Christian life was marked by the ordinance of baptism. From the very first days also the meeting together of Christians was marked by a simple memorial meal taken in a solemn hush which vividly recalled the evening of the Last Supper. Of course these acts were intended to be significant, and of course their significance is the important thing about them. A word is not merely letters and syllables. It is content and meaning. The important question about it is not its spelling, but What does it say? It was expected that when the families of Israel were gathered together in the land of promise to observe the Passover for an “ordinance to thee and thy sons forever,” the children would say, “What mean ye by this service?” and it is recorded that it should be regarded as quite as important to explain its meaning as to continue the observance. When, with reference to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we ask, “What mean ye by this service?” we are fortunately not left to speculation. We ought not to be surprised to find that the most vital things of the Christian message are enshrined in these forms. There is very little theory which is directly expressed by them, but very much of fact.

In Romans 6 Paul writes as if the significance of baptism had so often been explained that his readers might be expected to understand it and to draw the obvious conclusions. Puncturing the Antinomian arguments by which apparently some of them had hoped to save their favorite sins, he says: “How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein? Know ye not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death, that like as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Jesus Christ was dead and buried, and rose again, and in this significant ordinance of burial and resurrection I declare that I deserved to die, that he died for me, that I accept his death for me and declare it my own. Whoever takes the death and the new life out of the Christian experience robs it of its unique value. Whoever interprets this as involving merely a theory and not requiring a life of positive holiness and actual service, is sadly degrading it. Paul pleads that we make good on the proposition and show that we are free from the dominance of sin by the exhibition of a new life.

What baptism says is more important than how it says it. Here indeed is the chief mischief of sprinkling and any of the substitutes for baptism. Those who urge a more convenient baptism plead that “any application of water signifies cleansing.” That might do for the Jewish ablution. Perhaps it is conceivable that that might have served for John’s baptism and the interpretation of the message to repent. It might easily serve to indicate a purpose to reform, to change the outward manner of life.

But herein consists the unique addition which Jesus made to the Old Testament. His purpose was not the polishing up of the old life, but giving a new one. The keyword of the Old Testament is righteousness, purity. The key-word of the New Testament is life; “I am come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” And as in all nature, that life springs out of death. Christ died for me. Perhaps there is a time when our tongues, schooled in the prosaic habit of the West, striving to conform to the standard of an earthly tribunal of justice, may have stammered at the word vicarious. These last fearful years have served to accustom our thought to it. So much of life is shown to be vicarious that we have learned it is the regular order. With even less hesitation than in other days, without shame, because of the necessities of my case, I say, “Christ died for me.” My baptism says; “I died, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Far more than ritual is the significance of the death with Christ and the reality of the life in him. No substitute for Christian baptism declares these basic facts. The serious objection to any substitute is that it obscures them. We need the emphasis of this truth with every new Christian life.

The words in which the Last Supper was explained place solemn emphasis on the same fact: “This is my body, given for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for many, for the remission of sins. This do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me; for as oft as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death, till he come.” We are assured that the purpose of this ordinance is defeated when it is partaken of, not by one lacking some outward condition of eligibility, but by one without the inner discernment which enables him to perceive the Lord’s body. No formal participation in either ordinance is of value if it does not tell the truth about our personal relation to him. No acceptance of any doctrinal statement about him can take the place of a personal experience of him. We are always brought back to him. “Christ is all.” “Christ liveth in me.” “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” No theories about him, right or wrong, determine our standing in him. We should do our poor best to have them right, but blessed be his Name, my imperfect thinking does not wholly exclude him. And indeed, we have known some who had great confidence that their ideas were correct, who made gruesome representations of his spirit. We cannot too often be brought back into his personal presence and face to face with him.

From henceforth let there be but one only Baptist fundamental. Let all inferences from it take their second place. “Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

I am proud to claim fellowship with any man who is on that foundation, even though “his mind does not go along with mine” all the way. I am sorry when any brother draws away from me merely because I do not draw all of his inferences from that foundation. But I can only “remember Jesus Christ” and try to know him as he went about doing good to the sick and sorrowing, the hungry and discouraged. I have a deep conviction that the Bible is inspired, but that conviction does not include the inspiration of its interpreters, not even in the twentieth century. I cannot give my assent to the modern version of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which would suggest that, if we are on our way down to Jericho, and see beside the road a suffering pilgrim who has fallen into misfortune by the way, the proper and orthodox procedure for us is neither to pass by on the other side nor to administer oil and wine, but to take our seat on the curbstone across the street and figure out a time-table of the coming of the Lord. The next step is to conclude that our time-table is inspired, and finally to require that all the brotherhood accept it on pain of demotion.

Can we not carry in our minds two simultaneous ideas: first, the salvation by grace of the individual soul; then, the New Testament teaching as to how the saved disciple is to operate, on the Jericho road and on the journey of life? It is not a superfluous or less spiritual work to give due interpretation and emphasis to the duties and obligations of the new life. We cannot afford to forget that He who came to save the souls of men left us one only outward and visible test by which our attitude toward him is finally to be judged, namely, this, our interest in the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.

I cannot preach Christ and ignore in my program the work which he was accustomed to do. I cannot discern his body, and neglect the work his body did. He was apparently less concerned about what we call him than about what we do with his orders. Let no other thought, however true, usurp the place of primacy which belongs to him alone.

Baptists do not place too much emphasis upon the ordinances, but when that emphasis is only on their form, obscuring their significance, it is sadly misplaced.

Link to Baptist Fundamentals and other works available in Logos format as part of the Roger Williams Heritage Archives, produced by Maranatha Baptist University.

Baptist Fundamentals series:


Baptist Fundamentals: Opening Address

Comments on Baptist Fundamentals: Opening Address

Historic Baptist Principles? … or the seed of defeat in the soil of revival

Baptist Fundamentals: Fidelity to Our Baptist Heritage (1)

Baptist Fundamentals: Fidelity to Our Baptist Heritage (2)

Comments on Baptist Fundamentals: Fidelity to Our Baptist Heritage

Baptist Fundamentals: The Divine Unity of Holy Scripture

Comments on Baptist Fundamentals: The Divine Unity of Holy Scripture

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