South of Lake Constance, where the land rises to the shimmering Säntis, Altmann, and Kreuzberg peaks, the city of Sankt Gallen lies in the valley of the Sitter River. For more than a thousand years after 612 A.D. when the missionary, Gall of Down, settled here, monks lived in Sankt Gallen.
Over the centuries their monastery grew. Its library grew to become the most important one in Europe north of the Alps. Its abbots grew in importance until Sankt Gallen became a free city and its abbots princes of the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1525 people knew Sankt Gallen for two things: its ancient monastery and its textiles. For generations, the weavers of Sankt Gallen had made the finest linens of this part of Europe. They had become wealthy and formed an association, a "weavers' guild," and the son of the guild leader was a boy named Wolf.
Wolf Ulimann's father, in spite of his growing wealth and his eye for business, did not overlook the tender conscience of his son. He sent Wolf south to Chur (in the Grisons where the Romans had lived behind the Rhaetian Alps) to become a monk.
While Wolf Ulimann studied in quiet seclusion, another young man of Sankt Gallen, Johannes Kessler, traveled north to the university of Wittenberg in Germany. On his way he stopped one night at Jena in Thüringen at the Black Bear Inn. Some knights came to the inn. At least he thought they were knights, but one was Martin Luther, disguised in a knight's armour, on a secret mission out from the Wartburg Castle where he was hiding.
Johannes Kessler, the student, and Martin Luther, the pope-defying monk in a knight's armour got acquainted, like travelers get acquainted on cold evenings at hotels, and their talk turned serious.
When Johannes Kessler returned to Sankt Gallen, he had committed himself to the study of the holy writings. He began to hold meetings at his house in the evenings, where he read the words of Christ and explained them to the young people who came to learn. Wolf Ulimann, during a time at home, attended a meeting and was moved to stay and become a regular participant. He listened, read, and prayed until the Spirit led him to inner repentance and a new life in Christ.
The city council of Sankt Gallen (which by now had turned Protestant) asked Johannes Kessler to stop having the classes. They "caused unrest in the church." But Wolf did not want them to stop. He invited those who sought for the truth to the meeting room of his father's guild and kept on having them himself. More people came than ever. The holy writings, which Wolf translated orally from Latin to German, came to life in their discussions. All over Sankt Gallen people began to think and to pray, and the Spirit of God moved their hearts. Then Lorenz Hochrütiner came back.
Lorenz, one of the Sankt Gallen linen weavers, had gone to Zürich where he became a zealous, but immature, follower of Christ. One Sunday, after mass in the Zürich suburb of Stadelhofen, Lorenz was among a crowd of people who felt so moved to "do away with the dead idols" that they ripped out and smashed the church's crucifix. For this he got banished.
Now back in Sankt Gallen, Lorentz attended the meeting in the weavers' hall where Wolf read Romans, chapter six. The study hinged on the meaning of verse four: "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life."
A burial in baptism and a rising to a new life -- Lorenz Hochrütiner stood up and explained what he saw in this verse. Wolf Ulimann became powerfully convicted.
Several months later, Lorenz returned to Zürich where Georg Cajacob (Blaurock) baptized him on January 21, 1525. At the same time Wolf needed to go on a short trip. On the road from Konstanz to Schaffhausen along the Rhine river he met Conrad Grebel.
Wolf and Conrad talked, both feeling inwardly moved to follow Christ no matter what it cost, until Wolf said, "Baptize me!" "I must be baptized, not just with water poured from a bowl, but buried in the water like Christ."
Almost before Conrad knew what was happening, Wolf had stripped off his clothes and was heading with him into the frigid waters of the Rhine River in February, 1525. There, where the water got deep, Conrad "pressed him under and covered him completely," and Wolf came out -- committed to Christ.1
From this time onward, things happened fast. When Wolf got back to Sankt Gallen, people filled the weavers' hall, standing along the walls on March 18, to hear his testimony in which he said: "The Lord has shown me that I should leave the church. What the church teaches is not true. The truth has never been preached in this church, and it is not doing so now."
On March 25, Conrad Grebel came to Sankt Gallen with a man named Eberhard Bolt from the Canton of Schwyz. Eberhard (Eberli as everyone called him) had not been baptized. In fact he was against the baptism of adults. But he was a sincere believer, and after talking for some time with Wolf and Conrad, he became convicted too. Immediately after his baptism the people asked him to preach for them. He was a gifted speaker and had a "God-fearing and compassionate" spirit.2
"Almost the entire city of Sankt Gallen" came out to the Berlisberg, where they sat on the sun-warmed grass to hear Conrad and Eberli speak. It was Palm Sunday, April 9, 1525. The rich were struck to the heart. The poor were lifted up in Christ. Many of the women and young people believed, and a great crowd streamed down to the Sitter River at the end of the meeting "as if it would have been a day of parades."3 There Conrad, Eberli, and Wolf baptized those who believed -- hundreds of converts -- in the Sitter River, and a Christian commune was born.
The people chose Eberli to be their leader, and for a whole week they had services every day. They broke bread in their homes and found the joy of giving up everything for Christ. One rich man, Anthoni Roggenacher, threw before the brotherhood a hundred golden crowns. . . . Then they got called to court.
The city court of Sankt Gallen, working on behalf of the Protestant church, was most concerned about baptism. Baptizing people without authority, without the blessing of the church, and on top of that baptizing by immersion . . . such things simply were not done in Switzerland in 1525!
Wolf Ulimann spoke before the court. "We know only one baptism," he said. "Baptism is nothing without believing in Christ, dying to sin, and coming to a new life."
The court, under the influence of Johannes Kessler and Dr. Joachim von Watt (Vadian), moved cautiously. They asked Eberli Bolt to be so kind and leave Sankt Gallen. He obeyed them and made a trip to his home at Lachen in the Roman Catholic canton of Schwyz. There he spoke to the priest who became converted. The authorities burned both him and Eberli at the stake on May 29, 1525. They walked "gladly into the flames."
The city council of protestant Sankt Gallen admonished Wolf to stop baptizing "for the sake of brotherly love" in the Lord's church.
"I cannot do that," Wolf answered. "I follow Christ."
"Then we must expel you from the city," the court decided, but they did not do so at once. The "evangelical leaders" of the city felt compelled to prove themselves right and Wolf wrong. They arranged two public debates. At the last debate they read from Huldrych Zwingli's book On Baptism, Rebaptism, and Infant Baptism. To that Wolf replied in a clear voice before the great crowd of people who had come to listen: "You can have Zwingli's word, but I will have the Word of God!"
By June the Anabaptists of Sankt Gallen were strictly forbidden to assemble. On July 17, 1525, they were banished.
Wolf fled with a group to Moravia. He traveled and spoke and baptized. After a year he was back in Switzerland and they banished him from the city of Basel. Then he led another group from the Sankt Gallen area toward Moravia. But they did not get there. At Waldsee, across the Rhine in Swabia, they got caught. The authorities dispersed the children, drowned the women, and beheaded and burned the men. "In this way," wrote Kaspar Braitmichel in the mid-sixteenth century, "they witnessed with their bodies, like knights, that their faith and baptism were founded on the truth of God."4
Wolf Ulimann would have called it his third baptism -- the baptism of blood.
A Threefold Witness
The Anabaptists looked to Christ for their example in baptism. Christ was baptized in the water. The Spirit came upon him, and he spoke of another baptism he had to go through: the baptism of suffering (Luke 12:50). The Anabaptists understood this in the light of 1 John 5:6-8: "This is the one who came by water and blood -- Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and the three are in agreement."5
The Anabaptists believed that Spirit baptism, water baptism, and baptism by blood, were the three witnesses of their souls' salvation. Jörg Rothenfelder, servant of the Word at Augsburg and Sankt Gallen, wrote:
Baptism is not for the unknowing, as practiced by those who are against Christ, but only for those who believe. The order of Christ must be observed, and the three witnesses, Spirit, water, and blood, must be kept together. It is not enough to have only an "inner baptism" as some perverted spirits teach. Inner faith demands an outer witness.6
From 1 John 5 came the teaching of baptism being a "co-testimony" (Mitzeugnis), as it was frequently called by the Anabaptists of southern Germany.
A Baptism of Fire and Blood
"I baptize you with water for repentance," said John the Baptist. "But after me will come one who is more powerful than I. . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
The Anabaptists equated the "baptism of fire" in the Gospels with the "baptism of blood" in the first epistle of John. They saw both as being the baptism of suffering Jesus spoke about in Luke 12:50.
At first, when I saw what the Anabaptists wrote about suffering, I supposed they had a "martyrs' mentality" because of the times in which they lived. But I soon discovered that this was not the case. Compared to the sensational stories people write about minor happenings today, they gave their persecution little coverage. Suffering to them was more than being tortured, or burned at the stake. They believed that suffering comes on us in three ways: the suffering of persecution (Verfolgung), the suffering of temptation (Anfechtung), and the suffering of sorrow or anxiety (Trübsal).
When they asked Ambrosius Spittelmayr -- young, Latin-speaking Anabaptist messenger arrested at Erlangen in Franconia in 1527 -- what he asked people to do before he baptized them, he said:
Just like a man submits to the water in baptism, so he must throw himself under God and stay faithful to him in spite of prison, the sword, or whatever trial may come. . . . You understand the words of Christ in John 6 in a wooden, literal way. You think you eat his body and drink his blood in the mass. But to do so is something else. It is to suffer with him. It is to be baptized like him, in blood. Whoever does not want to be baptized with the Spirit, with the water, and with the blood will be baptized in the lake of fire.7
Shortly after giving this testimony to the German court, Ambrosius completed his third baptism. They beheaded him at Cadolzburg near Ansbach in Franconia, on February 6, 1528. Ordained as a messenger by Hans Hut, he had spent only seven weeks in freedom as an Anabaptist.
Leonhard Schiemer wrote:
Whoever is not willing to die with Christ nor to become a member of his body, whoever rejects the community of the holy ones and baptism with water, refuses the baptism of blood.8
Not everyone suffers persecution. But every Christian, the Anabaptists believed, must learn to endure temptation and anxiety. Only those who keep on following Christ through the midst of these, are those who are truly baptized and truly saved.
The third witness, the baptism of suffering, is an ongoing witness. We are saved in it, not by it. Baptism in its three forms is not a single saving act. It is an act that begins when we believe, which is confirmed in the water, and which continues until the day we die. "True baptism," wrote Hans Hut, "is nothing but a fighting against and a putting to death of sin that lasts as long as we live."
Menno Simons wrote:
Those who believe receive remission of sins, not by but in baptism. They receive the good news of grace, of the remission of sins, of peace, of favour, of mercy and eternal life through Christ. Believing this they get new minds. They deny themselves. They sincerely repent of their past life. They study the Bible diligently and obey the Gospel's command. They trust in the merits of the blood of Christ. Then they receive the sign of obedience, water baptism, as proof before God and his commune that they firmly believe in the remission of sins through Jesus Christ as it was preached and taught to them from the Word of God. When all this takes place, they receive remission of their sins in baptism. They receive it according to the promise of grace. They receive it like Israel received remission of sins for offering up animal sacrifices.9
An Ausbund writer explained:
With Christ you need to become a foreigner, without citizenship on this earth. You need to carry love in patience, even if they hate you without a cause. You need to love, like him, your enemies, deceiving no one, and bend your flesh into the dust of the earth. You need to go with him to the garden and drink with him from the Father's cup. . . .
The cup is the suffering of Christ . . . Where Christ is invited to the wedding feast he lets them carry out first the sour wine. They drink it. But afterward, in his Kingdom, he will pour for his holy commune the clear wine of truth, forever.10
Baptism on confession of faith
Peter Rideman wrote:
Two persons are needed for baptism: the baptizer and the convert. The baptizer first cries out that one must repent. He points to man his sin and how he may come to God for grace. He explains the benefits of baptism, how baptism is a covenant with God. In this way he moves the convert to desire baptism. The convert must desire baptism and ask for it before he can be baptized.11
Dirk Philips wrote:
We acknowledge one Christian commune, one faith, one new birth and one baptism. Baptism is to be received upon confession of faith and the new birth. It is a seal and a sign of faith, a washing of regeneration (Rom 4:3).12
Menno Simons wrote:
We find but one baptism in water that is pleasing to God. This is baptism on confession of faith, commanded by Christ Jesus and practiced by the apostles, a baptism administered and received for the forgiveness and remission of sins. . . .
First there must be the preaching of the Gospel (Matthew 28:20). Then there must be a hearing of the Word (Romans 10:17). Third comes faith by hearing the Word (Romans 10:17). Fourth comes the new birth by faith. Fifth comes water baptism out of the new birth (Titus 3:5). Then last of all comes the promise of salvation (Mark 16:16).13
Water and Spirit Baptism
The Anabaptists spoke of threefold baptism: a baptism of the Spirit, of the water, and of the blood, usually in this order. They believed that water without Spirit baptism was nothing. But they were aware of the Spirit coming upon Jesus after water baptism, and of the order in which he mentioned water and Spirit baptism to Nicodemus.
Peter Rideman wrote in 1540:
Jesus Christ said to Nicodemus that the new birth takes place by water and spirit. He put the water first because Nicodemus already knew John's baptism with water. John with his teaching and baptism was a forerunner of Christ.
Christ also put water first because baptism by water is a killing and dying of the old man, that is, of the sinful nature. It is through it that we become conformed to the death of Christ. But the death of the old man is not enough. One must become alive again. Becoming alive can take place only through the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Nothing can be made alive again except it dies first. Sinners cannot receive the Spirit of God. Therefore the baptism of repentance -- water baptism -- must first take place so that believers may be baptized with the Spirit.
Just as John was a messenger and a forerunner of Christ, so is water baptism a forerunner of the baptism of the Spirit. John taught and preached before he baptized. In the same way, teaching and preaching must still precede water baptism.14
Inward and Outward Baptism
Both inward and outward baptism, the Anabaptists taught, are incomplete in themselves. Therefore they tied them together into one event. The Anabaptists did not baptize sinners to make saints. Neither did they wait until a person had proven himself a saint before they baptized him. They baptized their converts upon repentance and confession of faith. Only repentance and faith were necessary for baptism from which the Anabaptists expected the Christian life to spring forth.
Putting emphasis on inner baptism, Thomas von Imbroich wrote: "Outer baptism does not bring salvation if inner baptism, that is the transformation and renewing of the mind, is wanting." Then, in reference to Titus 3:5 he continued:
In the same way baptism is called a washing of the new birth because it belongs to the born again children of God -- children born of incorruptible seed like James says, "born again by the will of God, by the Word of truth."15
Putting emphasis on outer baptism, Menno Simons wrote:
Baptism saves us, like Peter teaches. We are saved not through outward literal baptism, but through inward, spiritual baptism that leads us like obedient children through the power of faith into the outward baptism of water.
Christ's sheep hear his voice. True Christians believe and do. If you are a genuine Christian born of God, then why do you draw back from water baptism?16
On April 16, 1525, shortly after the beginning of Anabaptism in Switzerland, Conrad Grebel visited the mountain town of Oberwinterthur. He stayed in the home of Arbogast Finsterbach, brother-in-law to his friend Marx Bosshard. When Conrad spoke to him about following Christ, Arbogast asked him: "What must a person do before he can be baptized?"
Conrad answered, "To be baptized a person must stop fornicating, gambling, drinking, and charging interest on his money."
On another occasion Conrad Grebel answered that question:
Baptism is for those who want to better themselves, take on a new life, die to immorality, get buried with Christ and rise out of baptism to newness of life. . . . Baptism is the mark of change in the inner man. It is the mark of a new birth, a washing away of sin, and a promise to walk according to Christ.17
It took me some time before I understood Conrad Grebel, but his words become clear in the context of what the Anabaptists taught.
An Ausbund writer wrote:
Come with joy, and dressed in new clothing! Come discerning the evil from the good! . . . Come and draw near to the Passover feast if you have taken his mark: his Spirit, the water and the blood. This is the Christians' possession, and to this they cling. It is the mark of baptism, which they receive of their own free will, and in which their old flesh drowns.18
Like Christ, who responded with commandments (love your neighbour, sell what you have, etc.) when people asked what they must do to be saved, the Anabaptists responded with commandments. But they taught that commandments (the law) can be obeyed only when we follow Christ and become born again. They taught that Christ bears us again in the Spirit, the water, and the blood of baptism.
Water does not save us. "We are not born again when we are baptized," wrote Menno Simons, "but we are baptized when we are born again by faith in God's Word." The new birth, for the Anabaptists, was not complete without the mark of water baptism.
Dirk Pietersz, arrested after holding meetings in his house on the dike at Edam in the Netherlands faced interrogation. The interrogator asked him: "How long is it since you were baptized?"
"Ever since I was born," Dirk replied.
The interrogator did not catch the implication. (Dirk was speaking about his new birth.) But when the matter became clear, they sentenced him to burn at the stake in Amsterdam, on May 24, 1546.
A Seal of Faith
Just as circumcision was the seal of God's old covenant, the Anabaptists saw water baptism as the seal of God's new covenant. Menno Simons wrote:
Outward baptism with water is a seal or proof of our faith, just as outward circumcision was to the believing and obedient Abraham.19
Dirk Philips wrote:
Paul calls baptism a washing of the new birth because baptism stands for the new birth. This was like the Israelites called circumcision a covenant because it stood for a covenant, and like they called the great feast a passover because it stood for a passover.20
The Anabaptists quoted Tertullian who in German translation spoke of a Versieglung (sealing), and they believed that "the seal of God on men's foreheads" in Rev. 9:4 was water baptism -- the counterpart to the mark of the beast.
Baptism, they taught, is the stamp of legitimacy on faith that makes it a saving faith. Faith without baptism is like a document without a seal.
Thomas von Imbroich wrote:
Repentance and faith are confessed, they are sealed in Christian baptism. For after baptism a constantly good and godly life should follow.21
Dirk Philips taught the same. But no one explained it better than Menno Simons:
Do you suppose, dear friends, that the new birth is just like the world says, just a plunging into the water, or a little speech: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost"? No, dear brothers. No! The new birth consists not in water nor in words. The new birth is a heavenly life-giving power, the power of God in our hearts. Power flows from God when the Word is preached. Then when we believe the Word, it quickens, renews, penetrates, and remolds our hearts so that we are changed from unbelief to faith, from sin to righteousness, from evil to good, from carnal to spiritual, from earthly to heavenly, from the nature of Adam to the nature of Christ. . . . Those who go through this change are the truly born again. They are the regenerate ones to whom Christian baptism is a seal of faith by which they receive remission of sins.22
No Empty Seal
Catholic and Protestant baptism, the baptism of infants or of anyone else who did not "produce fruit in keeping with repentance," was no baptism at all to the Anabaptists. They did not feel guilty of anabaptism (baptizing twice).23 The only seal they counted valid was the seal of water on faith.
Menno Simons wrote:
The word of God must be taught and understood before baptism. To baptize before that which is represented by baptism, namely faith, is found in us, is as logical as to place a cart before the horse, to sow before we plow, to build before we have the lumber on hand, or to seal a letter before it is written.24
Leonhard Schiemer wrote:
To sum it all up, baptism with water is the testimony of the covenant we make with God in our hearts. Baptism may be compared to a man who writes a document and then asks that it be sealed. Nobody will seal it or sign it for him without knowing what the document says. Whoever baptizes a child puts his seal on a blank document.25
On a dark, rainy day in November, 1977, I got baptized in the old Lutheran church at Hesson, Ontario. We Mennonites had purchased the building, torn out its baptismal font, turned its Gothic windows into rectangles and were now using it for our meetinghouse. After my baptism and public testimony the bishop gave me a card. On it were the questions I had been asked and the vows I had made. The card's title was Covenant Reminder.
Many times since my Mennonite baptism I have been reminded of that covenant I made with Christ. And the thought of a covenant in baptism, I have discovered, is not new. In the 1520s Balthasar Hubmaier wrote:
Oh my Lord Jesus Christ, reestablish the two bands with which you have outwardly girded and bound your bride into a covenant. Your bride is the holy commune. The bands are proper water baptism and the nighttime meal.26
Ambrosius Spittelmayr told the court at Ansbach in Franconia:
We make a covenant with God in the Spirit, in water baptism, and in drinking the cup which the Word calls the baptism of blood.27
Leonhard Schiemer wrote: "Water baptism is the seal of our faith and of the covenant we make in our hearts to God."28
Hans Hut, Anabaptist messenger through southern Germany and Austria, said:
Baptism follows preaching and believing. Whoever is willing to accept the suffering that God will place on him when he joins himself to Christ, and whoever is willing to stay with Christ and forsake the world, makes a covenant in baptism before the Christian commune.
The commune may open the door of the covenant to all who desire it with all their heart, like Christ said: "What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven." The person who makes this covenant (in baptism) may be sure that he has been accepted as a child by God, and as a brother or a sister of Christ, a member of the Christian commune and of the body of Christ.29
Bound in the Water
"When we receive baptism from above," Menno Simons wrote, "when the Spirit and the Word of God bear us again, then we bind ourselves in the water. When we are inwardly cleansed by faith we bind ourselves in the outward sign of the water covenant (Wasserbund). We bind ourselves to the Lord Jesus in his grace when we bind ourselves in baptism to live no longer in sin.30"
A binding, a pact, a covenant -- this is what baptism meant to the Anabaptists. "Believers wed and bind themselves to the Lord Jesus Christ, publicly, through the true sign of the covenant, the water bath of baptism," wrote Melchior Hofman.31
"The covenant we make with God and the yoke of his son is heavy only for those who have never slipped their necks into it," wrote Hans Denck. "Whoever is baptized into Christ dies with him to the old nature. When this happens, the spirit of Christ enters us and ignites within us the fire of love."32
Peter Rideman wrote:
The new birth takes place like this: The Word of God is heard and believed. Then faith is sealed with the power of God. . . . Whoever is born in this way is baptized in the bath of the rebirth to signify his entry into the covenant of grace.33
The Sacrament of Baptism
"We Anabaptists do not have sacraments," I once told a Bible school class. "We have ordinances, and there is a great difference between the two."
To the forty six students seated in front of me under a bare tile roof in El Salvador, that made sense. Girls with white veils and cape dresses, and boys with black hair neatly cut and combed, most of them were real Anabaptists -- baptized by the village cura when they were babies and now baptized again in the Mennonite church.
"We do not believe in the application of substance for spiritual benefit," I continued. "Water baptism is nothing but an outer symbol of what takes place in the heart. The Lord's supper is nothing but a symbol of inner communion."
Earlier, while living in Mexico, I had written34: "Great emphasis needs to be replaced on Holy Spirit baptism. No matter who baptizes with water, how or when, all the water in the world will not change an unconverted heart. Water baptism is a most insignificant ordinance. . . . "
My teaching, I discovered later, came close to what some Anabaptists taught, but my terms and my emphasis did not.
When I got married and moved to Mexico my father had given me several books, including Dirk Philips' Enchiridion. One Sunday afternoon I began to read it, marking statement after statement where Dirk Philips confirmed what we believed. Then I came to baptism. Dirk Philips called it a sacrament and a washing of the new birth.
"How is this?" I asked myself, and drew a question mark at the side of the page. "Did he fail to understood the significance of the word sacrament? After all, he was barely out of the monastery."
Then I discovered that Menno Simons used the same word. He called both baptism and the nighttime meal the holy sacraments. At first I suspected the translators. It did not seem possible that Menno, the champion of resistance to "popish idolatry" could have erred like that. But a little research told me that the word sacrament flowed indeed, time after time, from his pen. There is a German word for ordinances (Stiftungen), but the Anabaptists did not use it. Pilgram Marpeck wrote at length about the sacraments, the Ausbund uses the term, and it appears in Anabaptist writings from all over.
Then I began to notice what seemed like unusual statements about the sacraments themselves.
Menno Simons wrote:
These are the sacraments that Jesus Christ established: First the holy baptism of believers in which we bury our sinful flesh, take on a new life, seal and confess our faith, testify to the new birth and a good conscience to rise and follow Christ. Second, the holy meal in which is represented the Lord's death. Jesus dies in love. In the nighttime meal we learn to die to sin and to love according to the Word of God.35
Hans Betz wrote:
The Christian commune is made clean through the blood of Christ. Jesus bears her again in the Wasserbad (water bath) through his Spirit.36
Jörg Wagner said, before they burned him at the stake at München in Bavaria in 1527:
Baptism is right, like Christ taught it. If the order of baptism is not perverted, it symbolizes his bitter death. Baptism is the washing away of our sins through which we receive grace.37
Jan Geertsz of the Dutch island of Texel said before they burned him at the stake in the Hague on Dec. 15, 1564:
Baptism is a grave for sin, a gateway into the Lord's commune, a putting on of Christ, a fleeing from the wrath of God, a washing of rebirth, and the seal of a good conscience or assurance toward God.38
What the Anabaptists wrote about the sacraments gave me a problem. I could not reconcile what they taught with the "established," "historical," and "biblical" positions of my own church. Then what was I to do?
Was I to say the Anabaptists were heretics? If so, how could the Spirit have moved them?
Was I to say we are heretics? If so, how could the Spirit be moving us?
In the end I answered neither of the questions. I went on no heresy hunt. I condemned no one and justified no one, for it became clear to me that my problem was something else.
I was still seeing doctrine where they saw Christ.
Only after that changed could I begin to comprehend what the Anabaptists taught about baptism.
The Perfect Example
There was no shortage of "doctrines" in the Anabaptists' day. But they left the Catholic, the Protestant, and every known doctrine on baptism behind and looked only to Christ and his disciples for their direction.
First came the example of Christ. Christ was baptized as an adult, and the Spirit came upon him. He taught that the one who believes and is baptized will be saved. Then came the example of Christ's disciples. They baptized repentant believers for remission of sins.
Other than this, the Anabaptists had nothing to go by.
Mystery, not Superstition
The Anabaptists made no issue out of terms. The term sacrament for them meant neither this nor that. They simply used it for the water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion.
The Anabaptists knew that sacrament is a Latin word.39 They also knew that the first Christians were not Latin but Greek, and a few of them, who read Greek may have known that the first Christians called the eucharist and baptism "mysteries" of God. The Greek word for "mystery" (musterion) became the Latin word sacramentum in Christian speech. The term involved the idea of sacred commitment and was used in making oaths or when promising loyalty in the army.
Mystery and commitment -- the Anabaptists had no problem with using the term sacrament in this way. Dirk Philips wrote:
Whenever the Gospel is believed and the sacraments of the Lord are received with true faith, the Holy Spirit enters the heart. Then, if we meditate upon the mystery hidden in the sacraments, the Spirit renews daily the lost image of God. He gives knowledge and increases faith, hope, love, patience, and all the divine virtues.40
Speaking about the nighttime meal, Dirk exclaimed:
What a great sacrament! What a mystery! That Christ and his commune should become one flesh and one bone (Eph. 5:3).41
The Anabaptists neither explained the mystery of the sacraments nor turned them into superstitions by attributing "magical" powers to them. That a sacrament should have power apart from repentance they did not believe.
Dirk Philips wrote:
Christ established in his commune the proper use of the sacraments, that is, of baptism and the breaking of bread. Repentant believers must be baptized, and for them the nighttime meal is prepared.42
Balthasar Hubmaier wrote:
Baptism does not cleanse the soul. It must be preceded by a conscience that is pure before God.43
A Washing of the New Birth
Only after understanding what the Anabaptists taught about the mark of baptism, the seal, the covenant, and the on going baptism of blood could I understand how baptism was to them a "washing of the new birth."
Titus 3:5, "He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit," meant nothing else to the Anabaptists than water and spirit baptism. Dirk Philips, after mentioning the "washing of rebirth" said:
Some people twist these words of Paul to mean the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Let that be as it is. But this washing of the new birth may be understood, according to the holy writings, as referring to outward water baptism. Baptism is a washing administered to believers in the name of the Lord. It is not only a washing of the body. It is a washing by the Word. It is linked with the Gospel and faith, with the word that whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.44
Menno Simons wrote:
Because holy Christian baptism is a washing of rebirth according to the teaching of Paul, none can be washed with it to the pleasure and will of God except those who are born again through the Word of God.45
Baptism for Remission of Sins
An Ausbund writer wrote:
He who is born out of water and Spirit is no longer a sinner. His flesh rules him no longer. . . . True Christians have buried all their fleshly lusts with Christ.46
Concerning Peter's command at Pentecost that repentant believers be baptized for remission of sins, Menno Simons wrote:
We preach that remission of sins takes place in baptism, not on account of the water of the rite performed (Jesus Christ is the only means of grace) but because men receive the promises of the Lord by faith and obediently follow his Word and will. . . . 47
Peter, enlightened by the Holy Ghost, commanded us to get baptized like Jesus said, for remission of sins. We must, therefore, receive baptism as it is commanded in the Scriptures. Otherwise we cannot obtain remission of our sins, nor will the Holy Ghost fall upon us. Who has ever received remission of sins contrary to the Word of God? Surely we cannot take the remission of sins and the Holy Ghost from God as by force. If we then desire the remission of sins, we must do and fulfil all that God has taught us through Christ Jesus and through the holy apostles. . . . 48
The forgiveness of sins takes place during baptism according to the holy writings. Baptism is the putting on of Christ. It is an immersion into the commune of Christ, not on account of the water or the administered signs (else the kingdom of God would be bound to elements and signs), but on account of the promise that we receive by obedience through faith.49
With all this, Menno Simons was careful not to imply that sinners can go through baptism and come out saints. In 1539 he wrote:
As Christ died and was buried, so we ought to die to our sins and be buried with Christ in baptism. Not that we are to do this for the first time after baptism, but we must have begun all this beforehand.50
Not Water Alone
The Anabaptists' enemies thought they could regenerate babies in baptism. They believed that baptism was a channel of grace. This, the Anabaptists steadfastly denied. Hans Betz wrote:
Baptism alone will not wash you from lust and sin. It only shows that you are clean in Christ. The righteousness of Christ is the garment you are to put on in baptism, when lust, sin, and deceit -- your Adam -- is washed away.51
Thomas von Imbroich wrote:
The washing of water is joined to the Word. No one is cleansed by the washing of water but by the Word, as the Lord says: "Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you" (John 15:3).52
Menno Simons put it plainly:
As long as men's minds are not renewed and they are not of the same mind with Christ -- as long as they are not washed inwardly with clean water from the fountain of God -- they may as well say, "What good can water do?" For as long as they are earthly and carnally minded, the entire ocean is not enough to make them clean. . . .
He who seeks remission of sins only through water baptism despises the blood of the Lord and makes water to be his idol. Therefore let everyone be careful lest he ascribe the honour and glory due to Christ to ceremonies performed and to created elements. . . .
Do not imagine that we insist on elements and rites. I tell you the truth. If anyone were to come to me, even the emperor or the king, desiring to be baptized, but walking still in the lusts of the flesh -- if the holy, penitent, and regenerate life were not in evidence -- I would rather die than baptize such a person. Where there is no regenerating faith that leads to obedience, there can be no baptism. Philip said to the eunuch, "If you believe with all your heart, it may take place."53
A Putting on of Christ
The Anabaptists taught that Christ was put on, like a garment, in baptism (Gal. 3:26-27). Thomas von Imbroich wrote:
When a man is naked he hides himself. But when he covers his shame he comes out with no hesitation. . . . So it is with the Christian. When he puts on Christ his sin is seen no longer. . . . He that is baptized right has put on Christ and nothing is seen on him but Christ and the life of Christ. "Christ loved the church and gave himself for it that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word" (Eph. 5:25-26).54
Baptism and the Cross
The sacrament of baptism literally pictured life and death to the Anabaptists. To get baptized upon confession of faith was to sign your own death sentence in the sixteenth century. Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin had mercy on rebaptized people and only beheaded them. But beheading in Roman Catholic countries was considered far too mild a punishment. (It was reserved only for those who recanted.) Baptized adults were usually burned at the stake.
Menno Simons wrote:
This is the will of God, that all who hear and believe the Word of God shall be baptized. They profess their faith through baptism and declare that they will live no longer according to their own will, but according to the will of God. They declare that they are prepared to forsake their homes, possessions, lands and lives. They declare that they are ready to suffer hunger, affliction, oppression, persecution, cross and death, for Christ. In baptism they express their desire to bury the flesh with its lusts and arise with Christ to eternal life.55
Baptized into a life of the cross the Anabaptists followed Christ . . .
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