Why do Protestants, especially evangelicals, reject the Sacraments, and the concept of sacramentality in general? Even Baptists, who per the name, are very particular about Baptism, consider Baptism merely “a symbolic act of obedience” (“Basic Beliefs,” Southern Baptist Convention). The Early Church, from the Apostles at the Day of Pentecost, down through all the ages, clearly and explicitly believed that Baptism was much more than a symbol — that it, done in repentance, was εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ὑμῶν (“for the remission of your sins”) (Acts 2:38). The Apostles and the Early Church emphasized Baptism to such an extent that it was literally the first thing one did, the first thing one even thought about, after coming to faith in Christ. Baptism, for the Early Church, was the act of becoming a Christian — the new birth into Christ that He commanded.
So how did Baptism become merely a symbol? How did Protestants, who place such absolute authority in Scripture, come to reject the clear scriptural testimony of its efficacy and sacramentality — and its absolute necessity? There is not a single instance* in the narrative of the New Testament when one’s coming to faith in Christ was not followed immediately, as if part of the same thought, by Baptism. Per the very Word of Christ, only those who “believe and are baptized” will be saved (Mark 16:15-16).
* Edit: Okay, there’s only one (see below).
Indeed, Baptism for many Protestant communities has become not merely symbolic, but optional. In my church growing up, Baptism was performed maybe one Sunday out of a month, if that often. This past Easter, thanks be to God, they had a mass baptismal service in which the hundreds who had come to Christ over the years but had never been baptized were dunked in the manner of an assembly line. I have often complained about the selectiveness of sola scriptura Protestants in what Scripture they choose to read and what they ignore — and there’s not a clearer case in point than this.
Is it, as my Lutheran friend Ken suggests, that the idea of efficacious sacraments is “too Roman Catholic”? In breaking away from the Catholic Church, were the Sacraments thrown out with the rest of the dirty bathwater? The Lutherans and Anglicans, generally, still affirm sacramentality in some forms; so it’s apparently more a Calvinist and evangelical thing (Calvinists were, after all, far more iconoclastic). Or is it, as I’ve often suspected, a tendency to reject the supernatural — which is a little ridiculous, since evangelicals otherwise affirm that the Son of God was born to earth of a Virgin, traveled Palestine healing the sick, died for the sins of humanity, rose again from the dead, and ascended to Heaven. My bunch, too, is quite ardent in their belief in miraculous gifts of healing and prophecy even in our day. There’s very little about Christianity that’s not supernatural — that’s the very idea. But does the idea of sacramentality — the idea that washing in water in Jesus’s name could literally wash away one’s sins — smell too much of “magical” thinking or “superstition” (which, I guess, smells to them a lot like Roman Catholicism)?
I will dig a little deeper at Baptists — they brought it on themselves by calling themselves “Baptists.” Thanks to this helpful site for a detailed and explicit summary of Baptist beliefs (emphases mine):
Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism is important but not necessary for salvation. For example, the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), Saul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-18) and the people gathered in Cornelius’ house (Acts 10:24-48) all experienced salvation without the necessity of baptism. In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter urged those who had repented and believed in Christ to be baptized, not that baptism was necessary for salvation but as a testimony that they had been saved (Acts 2:1-41).
As I pointed out above, that’s not quite what Peter said: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins.” This article seems to reject the idea of Baptism as a legalistic requirement — which, to my thinking as a Protestant, was how Roman Catholics viewed it. But we don’t; not at all. Baptism is necessary not because it’s a legalistic requirement, but because it’s how one is born again in Christ — how Jesus taught us that our sins are forgiven. There’s no legalistic requirement, of course, that one take occasional baths — but it’s what one has to do if one wants to be clean.
As the article points out, yes, there are examples, such as the repentant thief on the cross, of a sinner being saved without having been baptized. But the thief is certainly an exception, saved by the very divine fiat of Christ: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The other two examples it cites are explicit in declaring the necessity of baptism. The very first thing Saul did after having his sight restored to him was “he rose and was baptized” (Acts 9:18). And the very first thing Peter commanded Cornelius and his friends to do was “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48). The Baptist text, as evangelicals so often do, interprets “being saved” in a very narrow way, as the moment when one comes to faith in Christ. Yes, these believers, such as Saul and Cornelius — such as every believer ever — came to faith in Christ first, and then were baptized. One generally has to take off one’s clothes (i.e. repent of one’s sins, humble oneself before Christ, and believe in faith) before one takes a bath.
Thus, baptism is symbolic and not sacramental. Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism symbolizes that a person has been saved and is not a means of salvation. Baptism is not a means of channeling saving grace but rather is a way of testifying that saving grace has been experienced. It does not wash away sin but symbolizes the forgiveness of sin through faith in Christ.
This couldn’t really have been phrased any more explicitly to reject any idea of sacramentality in Baptism. I would be interested to hear a Baptist exposit to me just how he believes the Bible teaches this. Every reference to Baptism that I can find indicates just the opposite. Neither Jesus, nor Peter, nor Paul, nor any of the other Apostles ever once said “be baptized as a testimony to your faith.” They were instead very insistent and urgent — “repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.”
Baptists are very particular, as this article states, about when and how one should be baptized: only for adult believers and only by immersion. But if Baptism is ultimately nothing more than a symbol, why should the manner of it matter? It is, I suppose, only worth anything as a symbol of believing faith if it’s done deliberately by someone with a genuine and abiding faith in Christ. But why should it matter whether one is dunked in a baptistery, or in a river, or in a bathtub, or sprinkled from a baptismal font, or from a watering can, or from a Dixie cup, if the act has no efficacy?**
** For what it’s worth, the Roman Catholic Church would accept Baptism by any of those methods as valid.
While baptism is not essential for salvation, it is a very important requirement for obedience to the Lord. Christ commanded his disciples to baptize (Matthew 28:19) and therefore baptism is a form of obedience to Jesus as Lord. Baptism is one way that a person declares, “Jesus is Lord.”
Yes, we should be baptized in obedience to the Lord, because that’s what He explicitly taught. But why would Jesus and the Apostles be so insistent about it if it were just a symbol; if it had no real purpose or power? Why would Jesus command us that we have to do something unless there were a reason for it? Elijah commanded Naaman to be washed in the Jordan (2 Kings 5) not as a public symbol that he believed he was going to be healed, but because being washed in the Jordan was going to cleanse his leprosy. The act of doing it in faith, even though he was skeptical, even though he was angry, is what brought about his healing. Likewise Jesus commands us to be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins — not because we believe in Jesus and want to show our friends at church — but because being baptized is how He washes away our sins and gives us a new birth in Him.
And yes, that message of love and hope I promised is still coming. Even this criticism is given in hope and love.