Welcome to part 2 of my Biblical Baptism series. If you missed Part 1, click here to read it.
Before we dive into the specifics of biblical baptism, we need to address a critical question:
Is the Bible merely descriptive or also prescriptive?
In other words, are the words of the New Testament given to us primarily (or solely) for the purpose of telling us what happened? Or, is Scripture also provided to instruct us how we should live today?
This question is essential to how we approach GOD's word—and, to believers, all of life.
Scripture is definitely descriptive...
Every believer would agree that the New Testament chronicles historical events, providing us a combination of insights from the mind of GOD plus human behaviors, thoughts and intentions.
In fact, one can argue that the primary purpose of the four gospels and the book of Acts is to describe what happened—to inform the reader.
The apostle John said his purpose was to convince the reader of Jesus' authenticity:
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
(John 20:30-31 NIV)
Luke wrote his gospel account and the book of Acts as letters to a disciple named Theophilus:
1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
(Luke 1:1-4 NIV)
1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach...
(Acts 1:1 NIV)
...but is Scripture also prescriptive?
Virtually all believers would also agree that Jesus is Lord and that He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (see Acts 2:36; Matt. 28:18; Phil. 2:5-11).
Jesus currently reigns from heaven as the King of kings and Lord of lords.
By accomplishing what He did upon the cross, He also became the author of the new covenant (see Heb. 8).
He is head over the church (see Eph. 5).
So in other words, Jesus now has the right to determine how we live and work together as members of His body (see Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 6:15-20; Eph. 3:6, 4:25, 5:30).
If Jesus is in charge over my life as His would-be disciple, how then am I to know His will for me?
The obvious—and only valid—answer is to study the Scriptures (see 2 Tim. 2:15).
The Scriptures are GOD-breathed and given for the purpose of equipping us to be able to live righteous, approved lives (see 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
However, as 2 Tim. 2:15 says, it takes diligence in order to rightly divide (i.e., properly apply) the Scriptures in our life. This is why Paul cautioned the Philippian Christians to work out their own salvation in partnership with GOD who was working in them (see Phil. 2:12-13).
Repeatedly, we are exhorted in the Scriptures to live our lives in imitation of Jesus.
In fact, this was among Jesus' final instructions to His apostles before ascending to heaven:
19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations ... teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. ...
(Matt. 28:19-20 NIV)
This is exactly what the apostles did—they patterned their lives after Jesus and they taught others.
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.
(Eph. 4:1 NIV)
15 Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.
(1 Cor. 4:15-17 NIV)
12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.
(Heb. 6:12 NIV)
Since the apostles aren't around to verbally teach us what Jesus taught them, we must rely upon the written Word as our teacher, to show us what to do and what to avoid.
While some Scriptures are descriptive in nature, they also teach a broader message that remains applicable to us today.
Consider the following snippet from Acts:
27 During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.)
(Acts 11:27-28 NIV)
Looking just at these two verses, it seems like just a few interesting facts about a famine that occurred 2,000 years ago.
But ... if we broaden our context slightly, we learn a message which is very much instructive to us today:
27 During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
(Acts 11:27-30 NIV)
All of a sudden, verses 27 and 28 take on a new meaning and this text goes from merely descriptive to also somewhat prescriptive, showing us that if we have a situation where brethren are in need of financial help, food, or something else, we should love them and help when we can.
As always, any passage of Scripture must be considered in light of and harmonized with the rest of Scripture.
In this case, a prescriptive interpretation is in harmony with the combination of Jesus' teachings (John 15:9-17; Matt. 25:31-46), the teachings and actions of the apostles (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9; 1 John 3:16-18) and the early Christians (Jam. 2:14-17).
To be sure, some texts have solely descriptive value and don't provide actionable information to us today.
However, we need to be extremely careful when determining that a certain text doesn't need to be followed today, lest we be found to not fear the LORD or respect the Lordship of Jesus, as disobedient children.
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
(2 Pet. 1:16-21 NIV)
GOD gave us every word of Scripture for a reason, and we need to be prayerful and diligent to not miss His purpose for us by neglecting or discounting the prescriptive elements of the message.
3 reasons (some) Scripture is also prescriptive
In conclusion, consider these three reasons why Scripture should be viewed prescriptively in addition to descriptively:
- The only way for there to be unity between Christians in regard to essential doctrines is for there to be one truth.
GOD has given us this one truth (see Eph. 4:3-6). If Scripture is only descriptive in nature, people are left to choose to do what they see fit, which men are unequipped to do (see Jer. 10:23).
- If Scripture only showed me what was done, how would I effectively select which elements of it should be followed today?
This would seem more confusing than illuminating, which is not in the heart of GOD. His purpose is to reach us for salvation and to help us become like Jesus, not hide the truth from us by making us guess.
- Because GOD's purpose is to make us like Jesus, it makes sense that Scripture provides us a mirror by which to compare our lives with His.
This can only happen if Scripture is prescriptive in nature, telling us how to live and what to avoid.
James wrote regarding this comparison:
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
(Jam. 2:22-25 NIV)