Dr. Bruce A. McDowell serves as Minister of Global Outreach at Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, PA, where he has been on staff since 1982. Dr. McDowell was born to Baptist missionaries in Paraguay. He has traveled and ministered in 48 countries, where he has baptized many new believers. Throughout his career, he has been involved in leading ministry to international students from all parts of the world and leading short-term teams to serve with Tenth’s global partners.
The teaching throughout the New Testament is that the new covenant is the fulfillment of the old covenant and that we are saved by the same faith as that of Abraham through the essentially same eternal covenant. Thus we can only understand the new covenant ceremonies in the context of their fulfillment of the old covenant rites.
The approach taken in this study on baptism begins with exploration of the covenant, as it is foundational to understanding the purpose and meaning of baptism, and especially how it forms the basis for the practice of infant baptism. Next, a more detailed explanation of the meaning of baptism clears up many misinterpretations which are played out in its practice. Having a correct understanding of the meaning of baptism leads to how baptism relates to our salvation, as many confuse the sign with the thing signified.
Christian churches have practiced Jesus’ example and command that its members be baptized from the earliest years (Matt. 3:13–17; 28:19). As a rite of initiation into the Church of Jesus Christ, it is understood as a basic step to discipleship and living for Christ. For this reason, in many cultures believers leaving another religion to putting their faith in Christ are rejected by their families and persecuted when they receive baptism. Despite this common understanding, the meaning, mode and subjects of those to be baptized have been debated among the Church’s various branches. Often because of a different understanding of the meaning of the sign of baptism, this relates to its subjects and mode, those debating the subject talk past one another without mutual understanding. It must be acknowledged that being finite beings, no one has complete and infallible understanding of God’s Word. We remain sinners who now “see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12). Therefore, we need the Father to give us “a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him” (Eph. 1:17) through the leading of the Spirit (John 16:13; Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:18), “that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12), and the teaching of fellow believers to help us in our deeper understanding. Thus, we submit to one another for the collective wisdom of the Church on this matter (Eph. 5:21). It is in this spirit that I have presented what is commonly called a Reformed, Presbyterian, or Covenantal view of the sacrament fully supported by canonical Scripture.