The Believer’s First Obedience
Publisher: Kregel Publications
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
Authors and editors know how difficult crafting an effective subtitle can be. Often it’s more difficult than selecting the title itself. Larry Dyer’s subtitle for his little volume on baptism is among the best I’ve seen: The Believer’s First Obedience. It is succinct, accurate, and suggests the trajectory the book is going to take. True to his subtitle, Dyer does indeed portray baptism as the next sequential action following repentance, lining up theologically with Peter, Paul, and Christ himself. A convinced credobaptist (an adherent to the doctrine of believer’s baptism), Dyer does not attribute any magical salvific quality to baptism itself, but teaches that baptism immediately follows repentance as the normative sequence of entry into the Church of Christ. Baptism does not convey salvation, but denotes obedience to apostolic teaching.
The title of the first chapter is “What Is Baptism?” and explores five types of baptism in Scripture:
1) John the Baptizer’s water baptism of repentance for sin
2) Christian water baptism via immersion
3) Jesus’ baptism, which was His suffering on the cross
4) Jesus’ baptism of believers with the Holy Spirit
5) Jesus’ baptism of judgment on unbelievers with fire
Dyer delineates very carefully between these different meanings and usages of baptism, but also shows where they intersect. For example, he asserts that no Christian today can be baptized by John’s water baptism of repentance for sin, but also demonstrates how repentance is the first plank in the Christian water baptism instituted by the Apostles. It could be said that Christian water baptism is the fulfillment and culmination of the water baptism administered by John. Repentance prepares the way for a new life in Christ and participatory membership in His body, the Church.
There is much good in this book. The bulk of it consists of exegetical, biblical, and theological exposition, seeking to answer ubiquitous questions about baptism and common objections to the “believer’s baptism only” position. Dyer not does rely solely on systematic theology with which to understand baptism, but describes Christ’s role and the Apostles’ role in stressing baptism as a normative activity following repentance. Even Orthodox Judaism’s opposition to water baptism is deployed to show how unbelievers often view Christian baptism more significantly than many Christians do. I also appreciated Dyer’s teaching regarding so-called rebaptism. For more on this, please refer to the book.
I would differ with Dyer on some small points. Whereas Dyer marks Pentecost as the birth of the Church, I would see the Church as the New Covenant continuation of the people of God – the true Israel, echoing Paul in Romans. Dyer is really quite balanced; he is not a rabid dispensationalist by any means, but he attributes weakness to the covenantal view for not adequately distinguishing between Old Testament Israel and the New Covenant church. Secondly, he insists that infant baptism can create false assurance in those so baptized, but from experience I would argue that many adult believers are similarly falsely assured on the grounds of their immersion in adulthood. Thirdly, although he possesses a high view of baptism as a form of Christian obedience, Dyer produces a table in which he accredits water baptism with only a symbolic significance, and not as a means of grace. I would argue that baptism is not a mere ceremony, but is spiritually effective insofar as it edifies both believers and unbelievers in attendance, and is therefore a means of grace. Finally, this book does have its idiosyncrasies. Charles Ryrie is treated as least once as the one at which the buck stops, and Dyer’s great love for theological dictionaries is on display in the bibliography. The “Practical Hints for Baptism” section is bookended between two theological chapters, breaking the book up in a strange way.
This little book did not answer all of my questions by any means; in fact, it raised some new ones. But for a church, pastor, or layperson who is already a convinced brook-no-infant-baptism credobaptist, it will be an effective tool for baptism preparation classes and as a low-priced giveaway resource for anyone seeking to better understand what a typical evangelical church understands baptism to be.