“Should the Water Divide Us? Baptism, Church Membership, and the Glory of Christ” notes on a lecture by Dr. Greg Wills

This morning at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Greg Wills, Professor of Church History and Director for the Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention delivered a passionate, thought-provoking lecture on doctines of baptism.

Dr. Wills covered three main topics:

  1. Is immersion essential to baptism? (Or can “pouring” or “sprinkling” count as baptism?)
  2. May we admit persons to church membership and the Lord’s Supper who have not been immersed? (A question raised most notably by Pastor John Piper.)
  3. Does the administrator matter? (In regards to the question of “alien immersion” most notably raised by recent Southern Baptist International Mission Board policies.)

At the beginning of his lecture, Dr. Wills noted that he wouldn’t be directly addressing all areas we must consider in thinking about baptism, or even the most important areas (for example, the proper subjects of baptism). He also noted that baptism is a secondary issue, subordinate to Gospel doctrine, though it is far from being a matter of indifference as- according to Jesus- neglect in lesser matters is indicative that we will be unfaithful in greater matters. Finally (before he got into the major portion of his talk) he noted that churches do not have to be in total agreement on all details of baptism in order to be in fellowship with one another.

Following are my notes on what Dr. Wills’ had to say in regard to the points enumerated above:

  1. There is no such thing as re-baptism and we should try to avoid using that term- there can be only one proper baptism. “We don’t believe in baptism by immersion; we believe in baptism, which is immersion.” We should not even accede to conversation on the “mode of baptism,” as this confuses the clarity of Christ’s command. If we were commanded to wash, soak, or purify people, we could speak of “mode,” but we are commanded instead to immerse. “The form is the thing commanded… I don’t see any freedom here.” [At this point I’d like to add a quote I heard from Dr. Wills in another context: “The question of ‘mode’ in baptism is as irrelevant as the mode of circumcision in the Old Covenant.”] It is presumption to substitute a command of God due to circumstances- as seen in the judgements against King Saul, Uzzah, etc.
  2. The only person who we ought to admit to church membership and the Lord’s Table are those who have followed the Lord’s command to have been baptized upon a credible profession of faith. Those who have not been baptized are in disobedience to the first command of Christ. That unbaptized Christians sincerely believe they are obeying the Lord is a good thing (better than if they were intentionally disobeying the Lord), but sincerity does not change the nature of the command. Those living in unrepented sin should not be invited to the Lord’s Table.
  3. What makes a baptism valid? Both biblical mode and biblical meaning. Acts 19:1-7. Baptism is valid if it is according to the biblical form, in response to the biblical Gospel, in conjunction with a proclamation of the biblical meaning of baptism, administered to a biblically qualified subject (one who has repented and come to faith in Christ), and performed by a biblical adminstrator (one appointed by the local congregation) of a biblical church.

At the end of his lecture (before the question and answer time), Dr. Wills commended J.L. Dagg’s Manual of Church Order.

Explore posts in the same categories: Southern Baptist Convention

10 Comments on ““Should the Water Divide Us? Baptism, Church Membership, and the Glory of Christ” notes on a lecture by Dr. Greg Wills”

  1. Garrett Says:

    I would be curious to find out how he would define a “biblical church” (in point 3). Anything you can add that may help to clarify that?


  2. Charles Venable Says:

    Matt 28:18-20

    18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

    How does the regulation to have a church administrator perform the baptism issue from this verse? or are they the only ones responsible for making disciples?

  3. Garrett:
    Dr. Wills was rushed to finish up his presentation at that point, being over-time, so he did not give much of an explanation for his definition of a biblical church. From his responses during the question and answer session, it seemed, however, that he viewed a biblical church as one where there is the right preaching of the Word (especially in relation to the Gospel), and a right administration of the ordinances. He also seemed to indicate the importance of Church discipline, though he said that a Church not appropriately practicing discipline should be lovingly confronted and urged to biblical compliance by a “sister church” before being (if persistent in refusing to discipline members in gross immorality) considered to fall below the standard for a biblical church. Beyond this explanation, I would not presume to speak for Dr. Wills.

  4. Charles:

    Somehow I missed seeing your comment until now, so I apologize for not responding sooner.

    Dr. Wills taught that the Great Commission and other commands to immerse were given to the Church as a whole, so that it is most appropriate for church officers to perform the baptism.

    There was a slight discrepancy in what he said in that he stated that a right administrator is something necessary for a valid baptism in the section that prompted your comment; but during the question and answer session, it was clear that if a local congregation accepted the immersion of an individual who had previously repented and come to faith in Christ- even if the immersion was performed by someone who was not a church officer- that the baptism could be considered valid, though he characterized such a practice as “unusual” and “disorderly.”

  5. Having gotten the chance to briefly speak to Dr. Wills after chapel this morning, I wanted to qualify what I said about his reference to 1 Corinthians 11 .

    The one point of similarity he was stressing between the situation in Corinth and that of administering the Supper to unbaptized believers today is that in both situations the Lord’s Supper was being administered in a “disorderly manner”- the idea is that of the seriousness that we take in “fencing” the Lord’s Supper through teaching who should partake and how.

    He wanted to stress that gross immorality such as what took place in Corinth is a first order issue with no excuse, which would require further action. Questions of baptism raise a serious, though secondary issue: Those who are from traditions that “sprinkle,” “pour,” or baptize infants believe themselves to be keeping the Lord’s command, so there is a difference between that and what occurred at Corinth.

    In short, he wanted to say that he wouldn’t equate being a Presbyterian with being a drunkard.

  6. I want to stress something here that I haven’t made sufficiently clear in the discussion above, namely, that NO tradition historians consider to be Christian has historically invited unbaptized members to receive the Lord’s Supper, according to their various understandings of baptism: Not Greek Orthodox, not Roman Catholic, and not any denomination of Protestant. If you go into a conservative Presbyterian congregation and tell them you have never been baptized- neither, according to their understanding, having been sprinkled as a baby nor having been baptized as an adult convert, then they will not encourage you to take communion. Baptists believe that baptism is immersion, which follows repentance and faith. Therefore, according to our understanding of Scripture, those from “paedo-baptist” traditions have not been baptized. So in cautioning those who have not been baptized against taking the Lord’s Supper, we are actually doing exactly what every other ‘Christian faith tradition’ does (i.e., we all believe the Bible to teach we should be baptized before receiving the Lord’s Supper), with the only difference being the definition of baptism.

    -The above being said just to give some perspective for those who may think Dr. Wills’ presentation to be bizarre or novel.

  7. Garrett Says:


    There seems to be a tension here. On the one hand, in the original post, Dr. Wills stated that “Those living in unrepented sin should not be invited to the Lord’s Table.” In context, this would seem to include Presbyterians, since their baptism is no baptism at all, which is just another way of saying that they have never actually been baptized. Therefore, they should not be allowed to participate in the supper. But biblically speaking, to bar someone from the supper is tantamount to saying that they are not a Christian at all.

    So on the other hand, in the comments section, you seem to be saying that you would allow a Presbyterian to partake of the supper if they could do it in good conscience after having been duly “cautioned” about the situation. Could you expound on this a bit further, as you seem to be wanting to have your cake and eat it too. It seems like, in order for you (and Dr. Wills, I guess) to be consistent, you would have to say that under no circumstances could a Presbyterian be allowed to partake of the supper because they are living in unrepented sin since they have never actually been baptized. But again, you don’t seem to want to bar them completely either since this would be saying that they are not Christians at all… Am I missing something here?

    I would appreciate any comments you could give; thanks for your time.


  8. Garrett- re:
    “…biblically speaking, to bar someone from the supper is tantamount to saying that they are not a Christian at all.”
    -That is not Dr. Wills’ understanding of the issue
    Even in his original presentation, the idea in regards to the Lord’ Supper was whether the unbaptized Christians would be invited to partake or cautioned against participating. Sorry if that wasn’t clear from my brief notes.

  9. -I wanted to add that in addition to the idea of “fencing” the Lord’s Table through what the minister teaches, Dr. Wills also asserted that unbaptized believers should not be allowed church membership.

    -For everyone’s information: I will probably close down this comment thread soon, just because in discussion notes from a (roughly) 45 minute presentation, there is only so much that can be said before we are merely speculating on what the speaker would reply to specific questions, and I am keenly intent to avoid misrepresenting Dr. Wills, if possible. (Even in some of the comments above, I’ve sometimes failed to make adequate distinctions, which is why I have to keep adding comments to my comments.) I do stand by the basic accuracy– though necessarily incomplete nature– of the original post.

  10. Andrew Says:

    To anyone who may have been following this comment thread:

    In a very gracious, brotherly personal email, the commenter who has been posting as “Mason” has asked me to delete his comments, so I have done according to his desire in this matter, deleting a few of my own comments as well that were in direct response to what he had said.

    Also, as I mentioned in the comment above, I am now closing down this comment thread.

    Hopefully, my fellow SBF blogger, Nathan White, will be posting in regards to the Regulative Principle of Worship soon, and I fully expect the comments on that post to be open as normal.


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