What is successionist baptism?


Hello brother,

I had a question about John Smith. Can you please explain to me what successionist baptism is? I saw it in your "Where Do They All Come From" sermon, and I just didn't understand very well what this baptism is about.


Successionism is the belief that there has to be an unbroken chain of individuals back to some starting point. Thus, successionist baptism is the idea that only Christians can baptize people into Christ because they had been baptized by Christians when they had been converted. This then supposedly makes an unbroken chain back to the Apostles. For the Baptists who claim this doctrine, they want the chain to go all the way back to John the Baptist.

A consequence of this doctrine is that if someone picks up the Scriptures and learns what they need to do to become a Christian, they cannot until they find a Christian to baptize them. For many denominations this isn't a problem because they believe people are saved at the point of belief, therefore, it doesn't matter how much time passes before they are baptized -- if they are ever baptized. Thus, one problem with this doctrine is a lack of urgency to being baptized. This is different from what we see in the New Testament. "And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain -- for He says, "At the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you." Behold, now is "the acceptable time," behold, now is "the day of salvation" " (II Corinthians 6:1-2). It is at the point of baptism that salvation comes. "Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you -- not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience -- through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 3:21). Therefore, you find a sense of urgency in the message preached. "And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:40-41).

It is good for Christians to baptize those wanting to become Christians because they understand what is needed for a person to truly commit his life to Christ. However, there is nothing in the Scriptures listing out a requirement on those doing the baptism. What is consistently emphasized is what the one wanting to be baptized must do. There certainly is no mention of a need for an unbroken chain of baptizers back to the Apostles or John the Baptist. As Paul noted, "So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth" (I Corinthians 3:7).

One of the things that have made the church impossible to destroy is its ability to restart anywhere in the world. All that is necessary is for someone to read the Bible and realize that they need to change. Thus, it is like a seed that grows whenever it finds good soil no matter how long the interruption might be.



Thank you brother for responding. I had another question after looking at the example of John Smith. Was it wrong for him to baptize himself or do you have to be baptized by someone else? I know baptism means submersion. Would what Naaman did in the Old Testament be also considered baptism?


John Smith (also spelled at times as John Smyth) was an ordained preacher in the Church of England. He also held Calvinist beliefs and so became a puritan preacher in Lincoln, England, within the Church of England from 1603 to 1605 [Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Churches].

In a manuscript that states it is the minutes of the Church of Church at Epworth and Crowle, there is a mention that John Smith inquired about baptism on February 4, 1604. In 1605, Smith changed his title from "City Preacher of Lincoln" to "Minister and Preacher of the Word of God." He left Lincoln and moved to Gainsborough where he denounced his beliefs in Calvinism.

In an entry dated March 24, 1606, you can read in the minutes:

"This night at midnight elder John Morton baptised John Smyth, vicar of Gainsborough, in the River Don. It was so dark we were obliged to have torch lights. Elder Brewster prayed, Mister Smith made a good confession; walked to Epworth in his cold clothes, but received no harm. The distance was over two miles. All of our friends were present. To the triune God be praise."

Later there is mention on April 1609 that "John Smith, John Morton (who immersed him), Henry Helwise and others held a meeting in regarding to removing the church to Holland." It was while in Amsterdam that John Smith denounced his baptism. He was still convinced that a believer's baptism was necessary but he also started insisting on successionism. As a former preacher in the Church of England, which also holds to the ideas of successionism but not of a believer's baptism, Smith probably was convinced that as a former Vicar in the Church of England, he had the connection to the past to validate a baptism. Having no one else to baptize him, he did it himself. These beliefs caused him to be withdrawn from the church he was a part of. John Smith later tried to join the Mennonites, but he was rejected after much discussion. John Smith then died in 1612. [Much of this information was pulled from Traces of the Kingdom by Keith Sisman.]

Thus, while John Smith preached successionist baptism, technically he was not baptized by a prior Christian who believed in successionist baptism. His dunking himself was not a baptism. The commands and examples in the New Testament are to be baptized, which means someone else is doing the baptism. "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19).

Naaman's cleansing was not a baptism. He immersed himself in water, and it was for the healing of his leprosy, not for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38).


I see. Thank you very much.

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