The perspectives given here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Sylvania Church. I would like to thank Allen Phillips for the general question about infant versus believer’s baptism. I would also like to thank Grant Conaway for the lunch meeting about the same issue.
Let’s Talk About Baptism
I want to start with a statement of affirmation. I consider many of the adherents of infant baptism as brothers and sisters in Christ. So long as baptism is not viewed as an “add-on” to salvation, the location of baptism in the timeframe of a person’s life does not exclude them from the kingdom of God.
Having said that, I am going to make an intentionally dramatic and controversial statement. I am a church historian by training, which makes this statement even more exceptional. Here it comes: I believe that the vast majority of members of the Christian community have been wrongly practicing baptism for roughly 1900 years. Usually, if something has been taught or practiced in the Christian church by members of the three major branches (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant), without any significant disagreement, then you would be hard pressed to find a reason to go against the teaching or the practice. A couple of quick examples would be issues like the definition of the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc. But, in the case of the practice of infant baptism, I believe most members of the Christian community have been incorrect on the theological perspective and practice for most of the life of the church.
I will concede to something rather signficant at the start of this article – infant baptism can be traced back as one of the earliest, longest-standing practices in church history. A student of theological history doesn’t have to work very hard to discover that the practice of infant baptism has a well established history, reaching back to some of the most ancient of times. I grant this and do not deny it. Yet, as an adherent of sola scriptura, I do not view the established practices of the church on the same level as the explicit instructions of Scripture. So, let’s look at what the Bible specifically teaches about baptism and consider if the historical practice of infant baptism has properly followed the course.
New Testament Teaching On Baptism
The New Testament teaching on baptism can be best evaluated by dividing the texts into three categories: (1) the order of baptism (2) the purpose of baptism and (3) unique issues surrounding the concept of baptism. There is some overlap among these categories. Let’s examine each one of these indiviually, then pull them all together at the end. For the sake of space, each text of Scripture will be abbreviated. Please take the time to look up each in its proper context.
The Order of Baptism
In every instance in the New Testament, whether explicitly stated or strongly implied, baptism always follows conversion (faith and repentance). Consider the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disicples of all nations, baptizing them…” The making of the disciple precedes the baptizing the disciple. A disciple is a follower of Jesus – one that has acknowlegded sin and repented, moving toward Christ in faith. Next, there is the preaching of the gospel by Peter in Acts 2. “Repent, and each of you be baptized…those who had received his word were baptized…” (Acts 2:38 and 41). There is a call to repentance. There is a reception of the preached word. Then there is the exercise of baptism. In Acts 8, there is the story of Simon the magician. The gospel was having a profound effect on the city. Simon wanted what the others were receiving. It speaks of these events this way: “But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike” (Acts 8:12). When they believed, then they were baptized. Later in Acts 8, Philip is sharing the gospel with the Ethiopian eunuch. “…the eunuch said, ‘Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And Philip said, ‘If you believer with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ … and he baptized him.” (Acts 8:36-38). The gospel is heard, the gospel is properly responded to, baptism is received.
Paul, after his experience with Jesus on the road and his interaction with Ananias, received baptism after his conversion (Acts 9:10-19). In the conversion of the Gentiles in Conrelius’ home, it is said, “…the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.” (…) and Peter asked, ‘Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?'” (Acts 10:34-11:18). In the conversion of Lydia’s household, we read: “…and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household had been baptized…” (Acts 16:11-15). She heard, she responded, she was baptized. The same pattern holds in the jailer’s home in Acts 16:25-34. “And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. (…) and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. (…) having believed in God with his whole household. There is belief, then there is baptism. The same pattern is found again in the conversion of Crispus’ household in Acts 18:1-17. “Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.” Faith, repentance, baptism.
Purpose of Baptism
What is the biblical purpose given to the action of baptism for the Christian community? I would propose that Christian baptism reflects four chief purposes for the church. First, it represents a participation in the death of Jesus. Second, it represents a participation in the resurrection of Jesus. Third, it represents a participation in the life and work of the Holy Spirit. And finally, it represents a picture of participation in the larger redeemed community. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
Participation in Jesus’ Death
Paul teaches us in Romans 6:1-14 that “…all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore, we have been buried with him through baptism into death…” (Romans 6:4). Baptism is a physical picture of a spiritual reality. Those who have repented of their sin and placed faith (trust) in the work of Jesus are participants in his death. Death is the penalty for sin. The reception of inheritance requires death. We are justly condemned to death for our sin. The righteous One, Jesus Christ, died a death he did not deserve. One aspect of our salvation is that we are participants in the death of Jesus.
Participation in Jesus’ Resurrection
Paul continues in Romans 6 with, “…so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:4). Because we have been buried in the death of Jesus (the picture of being put down in the water), we have also been raised with Him. Jesus overthrew death and supplies a new, full life. We are buried with him in his death, and now we are raised with him in His life. Baptism presents a complete picture of our participation in the work of Jesus on the cross and his subsequent resurrection.
Life and Work of the Holy Spirit
Paul instructs in 1 Corinthians 12, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves of free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Paul, encouraging the church at Corinth to righteousness and unity, points to the picture of baptism as a reflection of the life and work of the Holy Spirit now residing in them. By actively participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are also covered (sealed, indwelt, etc.) by the Holy Spirit. His presence in us is a guarantee of our life in Christ.
Participation in the Life of the Larger Christian Community
Along with the passage listed above from 1 Corinthians, Paul also instructs the church at Ephesus regarding the purpose of baptism. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; on Lord, one faith, one baptism, on God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). Not only does this address the order mentioned earlier (calling, centrality of Jesus, faith, then baptism), but it also deals with purpose. Baptism is an outward sign of what should be the reality of unity among those calling themselves Christians. The chief unity of the Old Testament was under the sign of circumcision. This was predominantly national (though non-Jewish converts to Judaism would be circumcised), exclusively applied to males, and obviously non-public (few people would know if a person was circumcised). The unifying principle of the New Testament is far superior and of greater extent. Which brings us to…
New Testament Baptism and the Old Testament
The New Testament explicitly connects baptism to two, and only two, Old Testament pictures. Many consider there to be three, but this third connection is partly responsible for the erroneous connection between baptism and circumcision.
Baptism and Noah’s Ark
Peter directly associates baptism with Noah’s Ark in 1 Peter 3. “…Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. 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” (1 Peter 3:20-21). Peter speaks of God’s gracious salvation of Noah and His family. Noah and his family were delivered from God’s wrath (brought safely, according to Peter). He connects this act of deliverance with baptism – which is pictured as a participation in the resurrection of Jesus.
Baptism and Moses’ Cloud
The language of baptism is also associated with the cloud of covering during the beginning of the nation of Israel’s exodus. The thought of passing through the sea, being covered by the cloud, eating spiritual food, and drinking from the rock are all tied to the ministry of Jesus. (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-13). Paul here notes that even though these people participated in the outward activities, they were unimpacted in their inward reality. “With most of them, God was not well-pleased…” (1 Corinthians 10:5). Paul’s warning is not subtle – this is an example to us who are in Christ now. We are not to be like those who have gone before – embracing the outward benefits of God’s grace apart from the inward transformation of heart and life.
Baptism and Circumcision?
The most common association, especially for those embracing the practice of infant baptism, has to do with the connection of circumcision and baptism. The only place where this is found is in Colossians 2:11-23. Yet, this text is not connecting baptism to circumcision. A close reading of the text demonstrates that these two are only connected by proximity of usage in the passage. Paul is not connecting one to the other. Notice the flow of thought: “…and in Him (Jesus) you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions…” (Colossians 2:11-13). Let’s consider the connection piece by piece.
First, Paul speaks of circumcision here as “made without hands.” He is not referencing historic circumcision. He is using circumcision as a metaphor for a spiritual reality. Second, the circumcision here is considered to be Jesus’ circumcision (“the circumcision of Christ). Third, from the beginning to the end of this section, uncircumcision is equated with a person abiding in unforgiven sin, whereas circumcision is equated with the work of Jesus (presumably, based on the larger context of Colossians 2, the crucifixion of Jesus). We were “uncircumcised” (dead in our sin) and Jesus became “circumcised” for us (died/had flesh removed, on our behalf).
Second, Paul indicates that baptism is something altogether different from this metaphorical circumcision. After participating in Jesus’ circumcision (his death, burial, and resurrection – the gospel: by faith and repentance) we then demonstrate that participation through the New Covenant sign of baptism. Paul is giving two distinct pictures here: one of a “spiritual circumcision” and one of new covenant baptism. These two things are not the same and should not be viewed so.
First, baptism is not the “new circumcision.” Circumcision was historically a national, gender-specific, birth-based activity, that had no meaningful connection to the faith of the one receiving it. As is the case with all the types and shadows of the Old Testament, the fulfillment is far superior. Circumcision is now pictured in New Testament terms as a “spiritual circumcision,” the removal of sin by the sacrifice of Jesus.
Second, the New Covenant sign of baptism is not specific to nationality, gender, or birth. It is faith based and tears down the dividing walls that naturally exists among people. In Christ there is no male or female, there is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free – and baptism is explicitly stated to represent this.
Third, there is the issue of “re-baptism.” This is usually a sticking point among those who have received infant baptism wanting to become participating members of communities that do not accept or adhere to infant baptism. Many state that “their conscience” doesn’t allow them to be “re-baptized.” Yet, the New Testament gives an example of “re-baptism.” In Acts 18 and 19, the story is told of Apollos. He is preaching Jesus, he is bold in his teaching, and he seems to be accurate in his doctrine. Yet, he was only acquainted with the baptism of John. The question is asked, “‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said to him, ‘No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said, ‘Into what were you baptized?’ And they said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling people to believe in Him who was coming after Him, that is, in Jesus.’ When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Many that adhere to infant baptism do not think this practice of “re-baptism” should apply to them. “I was not baptized in John’s baptism; I was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. I was baptized by a believing Christian community. There is no warrant for a re-baptism.” Let’s ask the same initial question that Paul asked, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” There is an importance to the order of things (as shown earlier). Baptism follows faith and repentance. Baptism is an expression of having received the Holy Spirit. To apply baptism to anyone without a knowledge of the gospel, hoping they will be saved at a later date, without the presence of Holy Spirit (as far as human knowledge can discern) is in essence no different than the baptism of John, even if it is conducted in the name of Jesus. Apollos learned a better way, and was baptized properly into the faith according to the order given in the whole of the New Testament. Such should also be the experience of those receiving a baptism dissociated from faith, repentance, the reception of the Holy Spirit, and the life of the community.