I have formed my opinions by studying the scripture and church history, and I think I am on the right track. But I don’t think I’m infallible, and smarter people than me have come to different conclusions about baptism. I know many men and women whom I deeply love as brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with me about baptism. Therefore, let us not be divided by issues of baptism. However, let us also not let different opinions keep us from seeking to really understand what the Bible says about it. If we end up disagreeing, that’s OK. It won’t divide us. But we can still seek the best understanding possible about baptism. I think we can all agree that the goal is to search the scriptures with an open mind, and a desire to know what it really teaches.
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1 PETER #25. 1 PETER 3:21-22. BAPTISM, PART 2
We are continuing to talk about baptism this time. Once again, I want to remind us that baptism is something that many good Christians have disagreed about for about four centuries now. I have formed my opinions by studying the scripture and church history, and I think they are largely correct. But I don’t think I’m infallible, and smarter people than me have come to different conclusions about baptism. I know many men and women whom I deeply love as brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with me about baptism. Therefore, let us not be divided by issues of baptism.
However, let us also not let different opinions keep us from seeking to really understand what the Bible says about it. If we end up disagreeing, that’s OK. It won’t divide us. But we can still seek the best understanding possible about baptism. I think we can all agree that the goal is to search the scriptures with an open mind, and a desire to know what it really teaches.
There are three main things about baptism about which good Christians disagree. We can use the following questions to help us understand the debates:
- What method should we use for baptism: a) immersion, or, b)sprinkling, pouring, or any of the three?
- At what age should we baptize: a) Only adults, or people old enough to understand what they are doing. Or, b) Either adults or infants might legitimately receive baptism.
- What is the meaning of baptism? Is it a) purely symbolic, an expression of our faith in Christ, and our obedience to his command to be baptized? Or, b) is baptism a special sacrament that God uses to impart his grace to us?
Those who answer the three questions above by choosing “a)” are generally Baptists of all sorts, Pentecostals, Evangelical Free, Church of Christ, and many others. For shorthand, I will call this group “Baptists,” because they typically have the same view of baptism as Baptists, though of course, many of them have significant other differences. We should note, however, the Church of Christ, though it shares a lot of Baptist theology, also has some differences with the standard Baptist position about baptism. The short version is, unlike Baptists, Church of Christ would say that baptism is absolutely necessary to salvation. They would say that if you have faith in Jesus, but die without being baptized, you might not be saved. I disagree with this, but I appreciate how seriously they take baptism.
The “basic Baptist” position is that baptism is a kind of testimony to our faith in Jesus Christ. We do it because God commanded us to. It is an act of obedience, and it is our declaration to the world that we belong to Christ. Because of this, and because of what we read in the book of Acts, the only people who should be baptized are those who are mentally capable of making a confession of faith in Christ, and who have indeed expressed such faith. Mostly, they insist that baptism be done by immersion, but there are some Baptist types who are open to methods of baptism other than that.
Those who typically answer the three questions above with selection “b)” are Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and so on, and, of course, Roman Catholics. Let’s call them “Traditionalists,” for short, because they hold to the same understanding and practice of baptism that Christians historically held throughout all of church history. Some of you, at this point, might think I’m mistaken there, but I’m not. There is plentiful evidence of infant baptism from the early church and onwards. In fact, infant baptism was not seriously disputed until the mid-1500s, and modern “Baptist” theology did not exist until the early 1600s. More on that later.
One of the reasons I want to talk more about baptism is because I think both the “Baptists” and the “Traditionalists” often misunderstand baptism, and practice it in ways that are sometimes not helpful.
Before we go too far, let’s revisit what we learned last time. We simply looked at what the Bible teaches about the meaning and purpose of baptism. There were several key aspects to baptism:
- It is an initiation into Jesus Christ. In baptism, we are identified with Christ. Baptism says “you belong to Jesus.” It’s almost like a passport, or birth certificate for God’s kingdom.
- It is an initiation into the Church (the body of Christ). Baptism brings us into fellowship with other Christians.
- Baptism brings us into union with Jesus Christ. Especially, it unites us to his death, and then to his resurrection. It appears to be, in some way, the means by which our old selves are crucified, and our new selves are given the life of Jesus Christ.
- The forgiveness of sins is somehow connected, by the Bible, to baptism.
- The presence of the Holy Spirit is connected to baptism.
- Repentance and faith are necessary in order to take hold of the benefits of baptism.
Although some of that might have been unfamiliar to you, we didn’t do any fancy tricks of interpretation – we just looked at the relevant passages in a straightforward way.
With that in mind, let’s look for a moment at the traditionalists. Sometimes, they seem to treat baptism as almost a kind of magic, or even superstition. Some of them feel that babies absolutely must be baptized, in almost any situation. They often neglect the importance of faith for the child who is baptized, and do not really make sure that a baptized child is raised into a life of repentance and faith. In the worst of these situations, pastors and parents think their job is done if they simply baptize a baby.
However, according to scripture, if someone who is baptized has no faith, it does them no good. Baptism is baptism, because God’s promises are real, and he does not revoke them. But, as with salvation in general, if we do not take hold of the promises of God in faith, though they are real and true, they do us no good. Salvation in Jesus is offered to everyone. It is enough for everyone. Jesus died for the entire world (1 John 2:1-2). And yet, unless people take hold of it in faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus brings them no benefit.
So with baptism, God offers all the benefits of baptism to all who are baptized. But if the baptized one doesn’t really have faith, he or she does not take hold of those benefits. In my own opinion, unless there is a family (and ideally, a church) who are committed to raising a child in faith, it might be wiser to hold off on baptizing a baby.
On the other hand, when the child is born into a strong Christian family, with a church supporting them, I think baptism gives the child a head start on their relationship with God. My own faith began this way. I was baptized when I was one month old, and raised by a strong Christian family, with a strong Christian community around me. For all my life, God has been real and present to me. This is true of my mother and father, also, and my grandparents. There is evidence from our family history that this has been the pattern for the Hilperts for at least five hundred years. But in other families, it clearly doesn’t always work out that way. So, I would say, discernment is important before baptizing a baby.
Now let’s talk about the basic “Baptist” position. Again, this is that baptism is a symbolic act, a declaration of obedience and faith. Also, in this view, the only people who should be baptized are those who are mentally capable of making a confession of faith in Christ, and who have indeed expressed such faith. This concept that people cannot have faith until they reach a certain level of intellectual development is sometimes called “the age of accountability,” or, “the age of reason.”
Let me start with the first part: the idea that baptism is a symbolic act of obedience, a kind of public testimony that declares “I am a Christian.” The book of Acts describes several baptisms. In all of those accounts, either an individual, or a group of people, hears the gospel, and comes to faith in Jesus Christ, after which they are baptized. That appears to support the Baptist position. We should keep in mind, however, that these accounts from Acts do not tell us much about the nature of baptism itself. They tell us what happened and how it happened. Even then, they are often sketchy on the details. For instance, nowhere does it explicitly spell out the method that was used to baptize someone. Acts was not written to teach us about baptism, but rather, to show how the gospel spread in the first years after the resurrection of Jesus. We have to be very careful when making doctrines out of historical books without clear support elsewhere in the Bible.
As we saw last week, there are other scriptures, found in teaching sections of the Bible (rather than Acts, which is a historical section) that tell us more about the nature and meaning of baptism. None of those teaching passages describe baptism as something that we do for God. They don’t describe it as a testimony of faith. They don’t even describe it primarily as an act of obedience. Instead, they describe baptism as an initiation into Christ, and an initiation into the church. Those scriptures teach that baptism unites us with Christ’s death and with his resurrection. They contain promises that somehow, along with baptism, the promises of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit are imparted to us.
Because of this, I am skeptical of the idea that baptism is merely a special kind of testimony of faith. The Bible teaches many things about baptism, but it is not clear that this is one of them. I am open to the possibility that it might be one part of baptism, but I don’t think we have much biblical support to claim that is all it is, or even that it is mainly what baptism is about.
We also have nothing in church history that suggests that Christians felt this way about baptism, until the mid-1500s, and really, the early 1600s. Early Christians took baptism very seriously, considering it a sacrament in which God imparted something to the one who was baptized. The idea of baptism as merely a symbol and a testimony is not found in Christianity until the 17th century after Jesus (1600s). I want to save space, but if you are curious about church history, I can provide direct quotations from ancient Christian writers, starting in the early 200s, showing that infant baptism was a normal practice in early Christianity. Use the comments section to ask for them.
Also with regard to church history, the culture of the New Testament period would have been heavily in favor of baptism for children in Christian families. People did not have the strong sense of individualism that we have today. All of their decisions would have been made with the larger context of family in mind. When it comes to baptism, entire families would assume that they should do it together, as, indeed, the New Testament records. Often, the New Testament records the baptism of entire “households” which, in those days, typically included grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, children and grandchildren. In wealthy households, the multigenerational families of their servants would also be included. (Acts 10:24 says that Cornelius was gathered with many of his relatives and friends. Acts 11:14 also makes it clear that God is working on the entire household of Cornelius. Other baptisms involving entire families or households include: Acts 16:15; Acts 16:33 and 1 Corinthians 1:16).
So, when it comes to something like baptism, the default cultural position would be that the whole family does it together. Adults in the family might have had the ability to opt out of the family choice to become Christians. It would have been a big deal, and caused division, but I imagine it happened sometimes. However, younger members of the family would be expected to do what the family did. It would have been a very strange thing to most families to think of taking a major step like baptism, but excluding their infants and young children. They simply did not think in those types of individualistic terms. It would have felt to them like excluding their children from the kingdom of God.
Because of this tight family culture, most people would have needed some very clear teaching explaining that infants and young children were not supposed to be baptized, and why not. Otherwise, as I say, the default cultural position would be to include children of all ages. Therefore, it is very significant that there is no command anywhere in the Bible to withhold baptism from infants or young children in believing families, or to restrict baptism to only people who were deemed old enough to make a “valid” confession of faith. Let me say it again. There is no command, anywhere in the Bible, nor any teaching, that says infants and young children should not be baptized. Again, without such a command children would have been included by default.
All of this is, I think, a significant challenge to the adult-only idea of baptism. Now, let’s be fair. The infant baptism people also have some questions to answer. Doesn’t the scripture associate baptism with repentance and faith? If we are going to follow the Bible, shouldn’t those be a part of baptism?
Not all proponents of infant baptism know how to answer this well. However, there are, I think, reasonable answers. The best answer (I think) is this: “Yes! Repentance and faith must be part of baptism – even infant baptism.” The question then becomes: What is faith? Who can have faith? Can Babies have faith?
If we accept the “age of accountability” model, we must believe that faith is mainly intellectual agreement. In this way of thinking, in order to have faith, you have to consciously understand a certain set of principles, and then consciously agree to them. If faith is understanding with the mind, then babies can’t have it, because their minds are still developing.
But intellectual understanding and agreement is not faith. James says that even demons can have that! (James 2:19). And surely we don’t believe that we must truly understand everything about God and Jesus before we can be saved? Many Baptist types are OK with baptizing a child of eight or ten years, but certainly those children don’t understand Christianity as well as a twenty-year old. For myself, I think I continue to understand more and more as I get older. At what point should I consider that I understand enough to call it saving faith? Also, if we must somehow be consciously aware of our own faith, what happens to it when we sleep, or fall into a coma? And where in the Bible does it tell me exactly what I must understand? In fact, what the Bible tells us we must do is not understand, but rather, trust.
Saving faith means we rely on Jesus. I think it goes without saying that babies have the ability to trust, to rely on someone. Now, does the scripture support the idea that babies can trust God? Indeed it does! In fact, many of the scriptures describe faith as beginning before a person is even born! See Psalm 71:5-6; Psalm 139:13-18; Jeremiah 1:4-8; and Luke 1:39-44. Jesus said this about children and the kingdom of God:
13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.( Mark 10:13-16, ESV)
Baptists say that this means children are automatically in the kingdom of God until they reach the age of accountability. But in context, that is not what Jesus is saying at all. He is talking about receiving the kingdom of God. He says in order to receive it, we adults must do so like a child – in other words, with simple trust. Certainly, then it should be possible for a child to receive the kingdom of God like… well, a child. In short, a child can receive Jesus in trust.
Ideally, in infant baptism, the child, through baptism, receives the kingdom of God like a child. As the child grows, his or her parents teach them more about Jesus, and the importance of continuing to trust, and of repenting for sin. Repentance, faith and baptism are all there together, but not necessarily in the same order that they appear in someone who is an adult convert. The book of Acts, because of when it was written, is mainly concerned with adult converts.
Some people, however insist that true repentance and faith must come prior to baptism, or baptism isn’t valid. That brings us to an important point. If you must be certain that you have repented and come to faith before you are baptized, how can you ever know for sure? Are you really sure you were saved before you were baptized? This idea has led some people to get baptized multiple times. It encourages us not to trust the word of God, but rather to trust our own subjective experience of whether or not we truly feel saved by God’s grace. To me, this idea also doesn’t really fit with the things we learned about baptism last time. Baptism is not earned, and it is not something we do for God. It is used by God to bestow grace and blessings upon us.
We all know people who got saved, and then baptized, at some point in life, and then strayed away, and then later came back to Jesus again. Should they be baptized again? How many times? How can they know they might not stray again?
It is true, faith is required to take hold of the promises that God connects with baptism. But the issue of when that faith really matures isn’t as important. If you have been baptized, and you trust Jesus, you have all the promises given in baptism, no matter when exactly you were baptized, or when, in relationship to your baptism, you put your trust in Jesus. To have it any other way is to live with constant uncertainty, trusting your own experience, trusting in your own faith, above God’s Word.
I wanted to present these ideas to you, because I rarely see them discussed the way we have here. But I want to reiterate that if you disagree with everything I said, I still welcome you as a brother or sister in the kingdom of God. Obviously, I think I’m correct. But I don’t think I’m infallible, and neither should you think that I’m infallible. Thank you for letting me present my understanding of the Bible about baptism. If you disagree, I respect that. No matter where we come down on the issue, I hope we can appreciate baptism as a wonderful gift from God that he uses to bless us.