Just before he was arrested, in a private room in Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth broke bread and poured wine for his closest followers and told them, “Take, eat; this is my body” and “Drink, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant” (Matt. 26:26–29). A few weeks later, a resurrected Jesus instructed these same disciples to go far and wide making disciples and “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). For the past 20 centuries, believers from diverse denominations with varying practices have observed these ancient and sacred rituals instituted by Christ and established by his apostles.
In 40 Questions about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, John Hammett, senior professor of systematic theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, asks and answers the most common and controversial questions about the church’s two ordinances.
Questions and Topics
Hammett organizes the book into four sections: (1) general questions (chs. 1–4); (2) questions about baptism (chs. 5–21); (3) questions about the Lord’s Supper (chs. 22–38); and (4) concluding questions (chs. 39–40). The two middle sections are further grouped into introductory questions, denominational views, theological issues, and practical aspects.
He first deals with the proper name, biblical number, appropriate administrator, and proper context for both ordinances. The 17 questions about baptism then address its origins, John’s baptism, Jesus’s baptism, and Spirit baptism; Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, and other views; and issues surrounding meaning, mode, baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, and whether baptism is a divine means of grace or human act of obedience. The 17 questions about the Lord’s Supper address terms, origins, purpose, and meaning; Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, and other views; the presence of Christ, proper participants, unworthy participation, and God’s role in the Supper; and proper frequency and observance, including pastoral advice for worshipful and sanctifying participation. Hammett concludes with two chapters on the importance of baptism for theology and the Christian life.
How does this book differ from the “flood” of other contemporary treatments? Hammett explains that he examines both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, covers a wide range of topics, addresses practical and pastoral concerns, and utilizes an easy-to-find format (13–14).
Multi-Denominational Understanding With Baptist Convictions
Unlike the multi-authored, multi-view genre (e.g., “Four Views”), each volume in the 40 Questions series is single-authored, requiring Hammett to blend personal conviction with multi-denominational understanding. He answers the call admirably, offering thorough research, nuanced discussions, and clear explanations of views not his own. Various traditions are clearly distinguished as Hammett critiques without caricature and commends without naïveté. He also displays sensitivity to intra-denominational and trans-generational diversity, refusing to assume that theological traditions are monolithic. Readers therefore learn not just the differences among denominations but also the differences within denominations.
Hammett isn’t a denominational bull in a theological china shop, but neither does he closet his convictions. He measures the swirling theological winds, then sends up his Baptist flag. His example reminds us that Christian charity doesn’t mean dulling our minds with theological lethargy or diluting our convictions with ambiguous calls for undefined unity.
We should never dull our convictions just because sharp things are dangerous. Rather, we should keep them sharp, and learn to handle sharp things. Spiritual maturity doesn’t mean social grace untethered from conviction but Christian grace grounded in robust doctrine. On matters of Christian disagreement, our attitude should not be edgy but our beliefs should have edges.
Hammett acknowledges his Baptistic perspective up front and then clearly summarizes his full view in the final chapter:
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordained by God to be a means of grace in the lives of Christians, if they are practiced rightly in faith and obedience. A right practice of baptism is understood by the author as the immersion of a believer in water, for the purpose of identifying with Christ in faith and allegiance, and being initiated into the church. A right practice of the Lord’s Supper is seen as a baptized believer taking symbols of Christ’s body and blood, in the context of a local church, as a means of renewing unity with and commitment to the body of believers, enjoying communion with Christ and being nourished by his presence, remembering and proclaiming Jesus’s death, and anticipating his return. Such a practice should be preceded by self-examination to enable one to participate in a worthy manner. (317)
Baptism as a Means of Grace
Baptists have traditionally emphasized that baptism is a human act of obedience. But Hammett, while he denies baptismal regeneration and any efficacy for infant baptism (150), joins a growing chorus that also emphasizes baptism as a means of grace when exercised in faith.
As sense-bound creatures, it is helpful to us to have a concrete experience that makes faith visible and allows us to externally symbolize what happened internally. God offers us a place to externalize or formalize or confirm what happened in our heart in giving us baptism. (152)
Baptism, exercised in fresh faith, embodies one’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection, thereby helping to assure the new believer. And for Christian onlookers, baptism reminds us afresh of our own death-to-life salvation and displays our unity with all who have been plunged into Christ with us. By acknowledging that baptism serves as a divine means of grace as well as a human act of obedience, Hammett helps deconstruct the kind of false dichotomy that often marks reactionary and oversimplified theology.
Diving Deeper into Old Testament Springs
My main addition to Hammett’s full and wise treatment is supplemental rather than critical: Christian baptism, clearly instituted by Christ and recorded in the New Testament documents, receives only New Testament treatment, but its springs run deeper than Jewish ceremonial washings, Qumran rituals, and the baptism of John.
Noah’s family passed through the floodwaters of judgment and disembarked as a new humanity (Gen. 6–9). Jochebed followed Noah’s example, bundling baby Moses in a mini-ark and floating him over the deathly Nile as God began redeeming Israel (Exod. 2:1–10). The Israelites then entered the Red Sea as slaves but emerged free in an archetypal event Paul calls their “baptism” (1 Cor. 10:1–2). The priests, the ark, and this freed family of Abraham later crossed the Jordan’s water-walled riverbed as they reenacted the Red Sea crossing and inaugurated their conquest of the land (Josh. 3:1–17). The Syrian general Naaman washed seven times in the Jordan at the command of Elisha, signifying judgment on Israel and compassion for the Gentiles (2 Kgs. 5:1–14; Luke 4:27). Jonah, doubly immersed by whale and by water, experienced a consuming judgment and vomitous resurrection (Jonah 1:17; 2:10; Matt. 12:39–40). Jesus later interpreted Jonah’s three days and three nights in the belly of the fish as a sign of his own three days and nights in the heart of the earth (Matt. 12:39–40), and Paul taught that Christian baptism symbolizes the believer’s death and resurrection with Christ (Rom. 6:3–11; Col. 2:12).
Thus passing from death to life through water—signifying judgment, salvation, and newness—flows from springs deep in the Old Testament. These baptismal images form patterns that expect repetition and escalation. Hammett highlights the flood (1 Pet. 3:21) and the exodus (1 Cor. 10:1–2) but concludes that “both of these references are brief, their meaning is disputed among scholars, and these two verses are the only places where such a connection is suggested” (51). But these portraits are part of a larger pattern that deserves further exploration as Christians continue mapping the subterranean streams from which the New Testament springs.
Pastoral Heart and Practical Guidance
Finally, I can heartily commend this book not only for its good research, clear writing, and sound doctrine, but also because Hammett’s pastoral heart shines throughout. He does not aim only to excavate, catalogue, and display historical and denominational views as doctrinal artifacts in the museum of church history. Rather, he heeds Paul’s admonition to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), continually asking how Christians should obey, approach, celebrate, and appropriate these two sacred ordinances as means of grace inaugurated by the Lord of the church until he comes again. Thus the blend of thorough research, fair discussions, sound convictions, practical guidance, and pastoral wisdom makes 40 Questions about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper an edifying resource for the full range of Christian disciples.