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What Is Baptism? Dr. Mark Dever

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Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Mark Dever on the subject of baptism.

Topics of conversation include,

  • What is baptism?
  • How this practice differs among different denominations
  • Modes of baptism
  • Issues of re-baptism
  • Age considerations for baptism
  • Resources for a biblical understanding of baptism

Dr. Mark Dever serves as the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and is the president of 9Marks Ministries. Dr. Dever earned his Ph.D. in Ecclesiastical History from Cambridge University, and is the author of several books, including What is a Healthy Church? (Crossway, 2007), The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, (Crossway, 2007), and Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Crossway, 2013).


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary

Brian Arnold (00:17):

Just before Jesus was lifted on a cloud back to heaven, he told his disciples, “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Jesus’s final command was to baptize new believers into the triune name of God. But what is baptism? There’s been no shortage of debate over the millennia about baptism. Why do we baptize? What does it mean? Should we baptize babies, children, or just adults? How should we baptize? Should we immerse? Can we sprinkle? And just a fair warning for some of our listeners—a bit of a trigger warning—my guest and I are both credo-baptists, which means we hold to believer’s baptism, that is, baptism is only for those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Well, to help us understand baptism, we have with us today Dr. Mark Dever, who serves as the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Dr. Dever earned his Ph.D. in Ecclesiastical History from Cambridge University. He’s the president of 9Marks ministries, and has taught at a number of seminaries. Dr. Dever has authored lots of books and articles, including What is a Healthy Church?, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, and Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Dr. Dever, welcome to the podcast.

Mark Dever (01:24):

Thank you. It’s good to be with you.

Brian Arnold (01:25):

So we always ask our guests one big question, today that big question is—what is baptism? And I thought we could maybe orient it around some of those questions I laid out at the beginning—the what, the why, the how, and the who of baptism. So let’s just begin with—what is baptism?

Mark Dever (01:41):

It’s a sign of our being saved in Christ.

Brian Arnold (01:46):

So that’s, I think, a pretty good, bare definition. Where do you go in Scripture to point to somebody to say, maybe like Roman six, or, you know, Jesus’s own command for baptism, or his own example of baptism as this kind of mark of what salvation looks like?

Mark Dever (02:02):

Brian, you’ve just mentioned the two basic places I would go. In Matthew 28, Jesus commands his followers to make disciples of all nations. And then he specifically says, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I’ve commanded you.” So Jesus, in his final command to his disciples, gave that as a command. And then when you go over to Romans chapter six, that you mentioned, Paul is writing the letter to the church in Rome, a church he’d never been to, but yet he could say, very confidently at the beginning of Romans chapter six, that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death—”we were buried therefore with him, by baptism, into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” So Paul’s assumption is that everyone who’s been converted there in Rome has been baptized. And, conversely, that all of those who’ve been baptized, are in fact converted.

Brian Arnold (03:00):

And I love the picture that Paul gives us in Romans chapter six. And I know we’ll talk a little bit about mode of baptism, how we should do it, but this picture of burial—this is a Christian coming, somebody who’s professed faith in Christ, who says, I am dead to my old self, the old me is gone, my sinful nature is gone. I am raised to walk in newness of life, in that 2 Corinthians 5:17 way—if you’re in Christ, you’re a new creation, the old is gone and the new has come. You know, one of the things that I’ve seen in Southern Baptist world since I was a child is some illustrations being used, like a wedding ring. So if I take my wedding ring off, I’m still married. But it’s a symbol and a sign to everyone that I have been married. What do you think about an analogy like that?

Mark Dever (03:39):

I mean, a sign is not the thing that it signifies. A birthday cake is not a birthday. A wedding ring is not a marriage. But the difference between the wedding ring and baptism is that wedding rings were not commanded by Jesus. Baptism was commanded by Jesus. You can choose not to use a wedding ring and still be married. You can choose not to be baptized and still be a Christian, but I would have questions then. Because if Jesus commanded it, why are you not doing it? You’re saying you’re following Jesus, but yet he commanded this and you’re not doing it. So I’d have serious questions for the person who says they’re a follower of Jesus and doesn’t follow Jesus.

Brian Arnold (04:16):

Right. Well, the very first thing you’re supposed to do is get baptized. And you say, I want to follow Jesus as my Lord, and you won’t follow him as Lord for the most basic command. How will you follow him with the rest of it?

Mark Dever (04:26):


Brian Arnold (04:27):

So, you know, maybe this is actually a good place to talk about how our view of baptism even differs from some other ecclesiastical traditions. Because somebody might be listening who’s Catholic or Presbyterian or Episcopalian. And we hold a bit of a different view of baptism. So maybe walk us through—especially starting with Catholicism—how our view would be different from them. And then maybe even in some of the different Protestant traditions.

Mark Dever (04:52):

Sure. Let me begin with the Bible. The Bible says that baptism is what you and I do when we believe in Jesus Christ. It’s a picture of the new life we have in him. And that idea of believer baptism has never been controversial. There is no Eastern Orthodox church on the planet, there is no Roman Catholic church, or Lutheran church, or Anglican church that would not recognize the validity of believer baptism. All Presbyterians, all Methodists, all Congregationalists understand this and believe this. It’s just not controversial. Now there is a question though, Brian, about baptizing the children of believers. That’s where other groups that call themselves Christian have advocated something that we don’t clearly see in the New Testament. That’s true, say with Eastern Orthodox churches—they will immerse an infant three times in water in the name of the Father, of the Son, and the Holy Spirit—and they will assume that God’s grace will work through that baptism to save them.

Mark Dever (05:47):

Similarly, Roman Catholic churches will sprinkle or pour, once usually, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And they will also assume, like the Eastern Orthodox, that that child is therefore regenerated by the grace of God coming through the sacraments of the Church. Our Lutheran friends are not super clear on this. They want to be very clear that justification by faith alone, and yet they will press baptism as if it is salvific. But when you press a Lutheran theologian, as I have before with friends who are Lutheran theologians, on whether or not the unbaptized who is trusting in Christ is saved, they would say yes. So their position is close to ours. Luther himself had a kind of believer baptism position, but he posited that there would be infant faith. Our Presbyterian friends have a different view—they would have baptism given to the children of believers, and they would see it paralleled in the sign of circumcision in the Old Testament. And then that would be a similar reading of our Congregationalist friends. And then Methodist would be less developed in a particular way. Anglicans would be like the Reformed.

Brian Arnold (06:58):

Well, that’s a lot of different positions that people have taken on baptism throughout the history of the church. I do find the Lutheran…

Mark Dever (07:04):

Oh Brian, no. Oh, Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. No, no. Just to be clear, man. No one has disagreed with what you and I do on baptism.

Brian Arnold (07:09):

Oh, abs…correct.

Mark Dever (07:11):

Everybody agrees on that.

Brian Arnold (07:12):


Mark Dever (07:13):

The questions people have raised about—what about our children?

Brian Arnold (07:17):


Mark Dever (07:17):

And that’s where the disagreements have been all over the field.

Brian Arnold (07:21):

But even if we go to the Roman Catholic view—it is regenerative. So we would have a disagreement there with baptismal regeneration kind of view, even in the Campbellite tradition, the Church of Christ…

Mark Dever (07:32):

Well hold on, hold on. To be a little fair to our Church of Christ, Campbellite friends, they…they’re generally not going to like the phrase “baptismal regeneration.” They’re going to understand…they’re…what they are, are Arminian Finneyites. I mean, they would believe that their cooperation, their obedience, is what God uses to save them. And that first step of obedience is baptism. So it wouldn’t be quite the same thing as our own Catholic or Greek Orthodox friends.

Brian Arnold (07:58):

Not quite the same, but in some of the discussions I’ve been in with them, the articulation of it is not far off, oftentimes.

Mark Dever (08:04):

I agree. It certainly ends up functioning like that.

Brian Arnold (08:06):

That’s right. And you take…

Mark Dever (08:08):

I’m just trying to be fair. I always want to present a position that I disagree with in a way that they themselves would most strongly and well present it.

Brian Arnold (08:15):

Sure. I hope so, as well. I think that’s always fair to do for people. The Lutheran position is kind of interesting, because he, you know, even in Tempted by the Devil, it is “I’ve been baptized” as a marker for him, what has brought him kind of into the Christian faith. But there’s been just a lot of different understanding, especially like you said, it is with infants and children in particular—what do we do with them? Are they part of the covenant? And as a church historian as well, you see this practice arise in the early church, it seems out of practicality. You have a high infant mortality rate, and you’ve got people saying, you know, I’m not sure this is going to do much, but let’s baptize my baby. Everett Ferguson, in his big book on Baptism in the Early Church has this line in there of—as so often the case in the church—”the doctrine followed the practice.”

Mark Dever (09:07):

Yeah. I think that’s exactly right.

Brian Arnold (09:09):

And so, what kind of…maybe…

Mark Dever (09:10):

So Brian, is everything at Phoenix Seminary as accurate as the statement you just made?

Brian Arnold (09:18):

Um, as far as the doctrine following the practice?

Mark Dever (09:23):


Brian Arnold (09:25):

Well, I would…I would maybe ask you to give me a particular of a doctrine you might have in mind.

Mark Dever (09:30):

I just think you gave a really good summary of stuff on baptism, and I was impressed.

Brian Arnold (09:34):

Oh! Well, yes. Let’s just say it’s all perfectly pristine at Phoenix seminary. <laugh>

Mark Dever (09:39):

Excellent. Much like my church

Brian Arnold (09:41):

Absolutely. You know, it’s one of those things that I try to tell people, you know—it’s the faith for all, once delivered to the saints, and we have this great tradition behind us. And as a fellow church historian, I think the more we know history, the better we can have, you know, a robust doctrine today that’s relevant.

Mark Dever (10:00):

Brian, what’s your dissertation on?

Brian Arnold (10:01):

So I wrote on justification in the second century, basically arguing that the view the Reformers took is present in the second century through a series…

Mark Dever (10:12):

Well, where did you do that?

Brian Arnold (10:13):

At Southern. Under Michael Haykin

Mark Dever (10:15):


Brian Arnold (10:16):

I’ll give a little blurb—so Baylor University Press published it—it’s Justification in the Second Century. So you can find it there.

Mark Dever (10:24):

Did you read Ligon Duncan’s dissertation on the covenant in the third and fourth-century fathers?

Brian Arnold (10:28):

I haven’t, I would love to…he and I have talked about it before, and haven’t been able to do it. In fact, here’s another interesting connection between me and Ligon Duncan, is he was going to be doing a book for Christian Focus on Irenaeus. And the day I defended my dissertation, Michael Haykin said—he has not done that volume yet, would you be interested in doing that? And Ligon came back around and said, I want to do that. So I did a different volume in that series, and I did mine on Cyprian of Carthage. And so even this question of baptism, you know, Cyprian talks about it as “wiping away Adam’s contagion.” And you get this early, even, I think a lot of people look at Augustine, really, with thinking through the issue of original sin, and how that can be taken away through baptism. But really, I think you can find the roots of that even in the third century.

Mark Dever (11:16):

Yeah. That’s my reading as well.

Brian Arnold (11:18):

Well, and then I think, you know, if we’re talking about mode, I think that could be interesting for people. You know, we talked before about immersion. What does it look like in Romans chapter six to immerse somebody, to show the picture of the grave? You are being buried. And I love baptizing people and showing that imagery—buried with him in his death, raised to walk in newness of life. But through the earliest writings after the New Testament, things like the Didache, you have other modes already being introduced for terms of practicality. So how do you kind of walk people through that, and the significance of the mode? And do you ever allow other types of modes?

Mark Dever (11:56):

Well, I think we want to first ask what does the word baptidzo mean? And if the word baptidzo only means immerse, then I think we at least begin with the assumption that we would therefore only immerse. Now you’ve brought up that example from the Didache, where they do specifically tell them to immerse in running water, and then, you know, living, zao—if not living water, running water, then in still water. And then if not able to immerse in still water, then pour. So…but what they’re describing in all of that is baptismals, is baptism. So the question is—is that end of the first century, beginning of the second century’s use of Greek by Christians, is that how they were reading the word that Paul would’ve written 30 and 40 years earlier? Or that Jesus would’ve spoken, that Matthew would’ve written down in Matthew 28, you know, 50 years earlier? Is that how they would’ve understood that word?

Brian Arnold (12:49):

And what say you?

Mark Dever (12:50):

So. Well, I’m saying we don’t have much information to go on. And so I would say that it seems to be wise to normally practice immersions. That’s all that we do, but I don’t think I can quite close it to say that baptidzo only and always means immerse. Or must mean immerse. Because of…exactly because of the Didache usage that you bring out there.

Brian Arnold (13:12):

Yeah. And there are the extenuating circumstances. What if somebody accepts Christ on their deathbed in the hospital, you know, I think that would open up a question for many people as to whether or not…

Mark Dever (13:21):

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! But then, then my question is—I think there’s another issue at play—which is, well, why is it so urgent that you baptize them with this sign? I understand if you’re Roman Catholic and you think this will wash away their sins. But if you just think this is a testimony, is there some lack in the thief on the cross, that he’s not baptized? No, there’s no lack at all. So why would I assume that someone who’s providentially hindered from baptism is somehow lacking something? If I have a Roman Catholic theology, that’s confusing for me, I understand that. And then I need to do something extreme or unusual. But if I’m a Bible-believing, evangelical Christian, then the mere fact that someone is physically restrained from receiving baptism, it causes no problems at all, from my understanding, of their salvation.

Brian Arnold (14:03):

Yes. And to be clear, I wasn’t arguing that. I was just saying it opens up that kind of…even in the modern day, I think, people would ask those kinds of questions. To which I think your response is the right response to those.

Mark Dever (14:14):

Yeah. But just to be clear, rather than going for mode, then, I would go for the question of—help me understand your understanding of what obedience means in your situation.

Brian Arnold (14:23):


Mark Dever (14:23):

So I would work on that before we would get to mode of baptism.

Brian Arnold (14:25):

So the response I got back one time from, we talked about Campbellites earlier, about the thief on the cross, is—the New Covenant hadn’t been initiated yet, because it was before the resurrection. Have you dealt with that argument before?

Mark Dever (14:37):

I think I would just find that argument unconvincing.

Brian Arnold (14:40):

Fair enough. Okay.

Mark Dever (14:41):

So I think the question, Brian, back to mode, really, I think, more particularly gets to—are you a member of a local church? If you are a member of a local church, does that local church require baptism for membership? And if that local church does require baptism for membership, then the question would follow—and can you transfer into membership? Can I become a member of your church without being baptized in your church? And your answer would almost certainly be yes, because you don’t want to re-baptize, you would understand rebaptism is a sin. And therefore, if you’ve been baptized in another church, you would happily take that. But then the question—would there be any limitations on that baptism in another church you would take? And certainly if that baptism was not in connection with the preaching of the gospel and the belief of the triune God, then that would not count as a Christian baptism.

Mark Dever (15:25):

So you wouldn’t take that. So you would understand that he was unbaptized, so they would need to be baptized. But what if they had been baptized at a gospel-preaching church in the name of the Trinity, but that baptism had been done by pouring water on their head? Would you take that as a baptism? And would your church take that as a baptism, and therefore they could be a member of your church? That’s the question. Even if your church itself does not practice baptism by pouring on believers, would you accept it as a baptism, if the person presents themself to you as having been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, believing the gospel?

Brian Arnold (15:57):

And what does Capitol Hill Baptist church do on that?

Mark Dever (16:00):

Wow. Yeah, we would be so concerned about re-baptizing, that we would err probably on the other side. We would assume they have been baptized. Depending on other circumstances. We would have a lot of questions.

Brian Arnold (16:10):

What do you do for a Presbyterian, who is baptized—

Mark Dever (16:15):

Again, it would be—yeah, if they came to Christ, and they were baptized after their conversion, in a gospel-preaching church, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if the only thing at issue is the mode—we would almost certainly accept it.

Brian Arnold (16:27):

Okay. So what would you do for—now, just to be clear for those listening, if somebody comes in—

Mark Dever (16:33):

I just want to be clear—I can’t speak for the elders or the congregation. I’m just giving you my guess.

Brian Arnold (16:38):

We will not hold you to it. But if somebody comes in to your church and says, “I was baptized as an infant in the Presbyterian church, grew up, feel like I’ve always known the Lord, I want to become a member at your church.” What do you do?

Mark Dever (16:53):

Right. We would tell them they need to understand that what happened to them as an infant was not baptism, and that they need to be baptized.

Brian Arnold (16:59):

That’s right. Yep. So just to be clear for everybody, that’s not considered a re-baptism. The first one was just considered not a baptism, so you’re not re-baptizing somebody. You are actually baptizing them for the first time.

Mark Dever (17:10):


Brian Arnold (17:11):

Yeah. Well, you say in one of your books, that “baptism is the discarded jewel of Christian churches today.” And one of the things that…you know, I like pulling back on the early church again, is just how beautiful the imagery was. We mentioned the Didache before—the running water, and washing sins away. I was pastoring a church in Western Kentucky, and we were a hundred feet from the Ohio River, and there was a boat ramp there. So I would love to…you know, we’d end church a little bit early, walk—as a congregation—walk down to the river, and baptize them in running water, as a symbolism of their sins being washed downstream. Why—

Mark Dever (17:51):

I’m from western Kentucky. Where were you?

Brian Arnold (17:53):

So I was pastoring in Smithland, Kentucky, which is just outside of Paducah, about 11 miles up the river.

Mark Dever (17:58):

Okay. Yeah. I’m from Madisonville.

Brian Arnold (18:00):

Madisonville. Okay. And I loved doing that as a congregation. And it did seem to give a bit more emphasis on baptism. Why do you call it the “discarded jewel” today? Why have churches not taken it as seriously?

Mark Dever (18:15):

Because even in the way people are practicing it spontaneously, they’re showing they just don’t understand how significant it is as a statement of the church about the person’s eternal state. About their regeneration or not.

Brian Arnold (18:30):

Well, so let’s give an example. I was in Campus Crusade in college, and in 2004 we were on a summer project in Clearwater, and somebody accepted Christ. And they baptized them in the ocean. And it was before I had thought much about these kinds of things. I was not involved in the actual baptism, I must say. But is that kind of what you’re meaning? Not in the context of the local church, just kind of offhandedly—hey, you accepted Christ, we’re going to baptize you? And not be thinking of how this fits in the broader framework of the church?

Mark Dever (19:03):

I would cry foul on a couple of points there. I would say, first of all, the speed of it. And second of all, who is then baptizing? And I would say, normally it would be done under the auspices of a local congregation, who would be affirming this person’s regeneration.

Brian Arnold (19:20):

So, you know, let me push you on that point. Because I can imagine somebody crying foul here, and saying—what about someone like Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts? He comes to saving faith, and he says—let’s stop the caravan, let’s go get you baptized right now. So how would you interpret something like that?

Mark Dever (19:38):

First of all, it’s in the Bible. I’m going to be real good with it. Second of all, I’ve got a deacon in the local church that was appointed, and he’s filled with the Holy Spirit, and he is specifically led there by the Spirit of God. And the Ethiopian official is actually reading an unusually pertinent part of Scripture. So it seems to be well set up for evangelism. It’s as if the Lord wants to get the church, the gospel, to Ethiopia. And so I would assume the Lord is doing something wonderful to expand the church around the world, and I would be right in line with it.

Brian Arnold (20:14):

Good. So how can we maybe give some advice to maybe some pastors who are listening? What can they do—

Mark Dever (20:19):

But Brian. So to that point, when we baptize, what we’re doing every week, when we have our baptisms, is more like a Passover than it is like the Exodus. So the Exodus is a gigantic supernatural thing that’s done to begin the new life, the people of God. And that’s paralleled with Pentecost in the New Testament. But when you and I meet every Sunday, it’s not so much like Pentecost, you know, with these remarkable external signs of the Holy Spirit almost guiding our hand, as it were, as we write. You know, what we do is more like the Passover ceremony every week, where we are remembering what God did at Pentecost, or at the cross and the resurrection. So I think it’s just not very wise or accurate to think that our morning service is a lot…is primarily being typified by Pentecost.

Brian Arnold (21:12):

Well, I think that’s helpful. I was going to ask—what do you do to make it not the discarded jewel? But even framing it in that way helps people understand the significance of what it is that’s happening there. Let me ask you—.

Mark Dever (21:23):

Once you understand this moving sign of the cross that’s put on every believer as they enter the church—what a wonderful, spectacularly appropriate, deeply symbolic sign this is of our beginning, our public following of Christ.

Brian Arnold (21:40):

Amen. So let me ask you this. And it may not be fair, because we’re winding down on time, but one of the more controversial things that you’ve done, as I understand it, is you wait quite a while for youth to be able to become baptized. Kind of walk us through, briefly, what your practice is, and why you do that.

Mark Dever (22:03):

Yeah, we think three-year-olds can be saved. We think you have to repent and believe and trust in Christ. We don’t know of an age limit on that in Scripture. Baptism, however, we understand is more like marriage. It’s taking on an adult commitment of membership. And so, therefore, we, like Baptist churches in the past, and many Baptist churches still around the world today, we wait until someone’s an adult to baptize them.

Brian Arnold (22:26):

Okay. That’s pretty clear. Yeah. Thank you for that. What are some resources you’d point people to, who have never really taken baptism seriously, never really thought much about it, that would be pretty accessible for them to pick up and read, to have a more biblical view of baptism?

Mark Dever (23:39):

A book I wrote called The Church, a book Bobby Jamieson wrote called Understanding Baptism. If they want more, a book edited by Tom Schreiner and Shawn Wright called Believer’s Baptism.

Brian Arnold (22:50):


Mark Dever (22:50):

Give you a fourth one—Bobby Jamieson’s book Going Public.

Brian Arnold (23:53):

Yeah. And he’s fantastic. For those who don’t know, he’s on staff there at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. We’ve had him on the podcast previously, on the call for pastoral ministry. Really thankful for the work that you’re doing, what you have done to help remind people how important ecclesiology is. What we think and do in the church matters, because this is the church bought for by the blood of Christ. So thank you for helping me understand that better, and for our listeners today.

Mark Dever (23:16):

Thanks, Brian.

Outro (23:18):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at

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