A Better Understanding of Baptism
A full academic paper is available on request.
Infant baptism has a long history and is considered by many Christians to be a thoroughly Biblical practice proven by time. But other Christians disagree with this practice and seriously question its Biblical basis. Dispute commonly centres on a concern for genuine relationship with Christ. Infant baptisers believe that members of Christian households should be thought of as already in relationship to God and only considered otherwise if they reject Christ. Those who advocate believer’s baptism contend that no-one should be considered in relationship to God until they accept Christ. Unfortunately these differences have caused great problems throughout the history of Christianity so there is need for re-examination of the topic.
This article examines the underlying tenets of infant baptism, both Biblical and historical. It will show that infant baptism is not well supported by either. Believers’ baptism is referred to briefly in comparison and is shown to have significant although not conclusive support. I therefore appeal for an attitude to baptism that harmonises with Biblical evidence. Where Scripture is not clear it is inappropriate to be dogmatic.
2. God’s Covenant
The doctrine of infant baptism has its roots in the covenant God made with His people in the Old Testament. It was a promise that, despite their sin and rebellion, He would be their God and they would be His people.
The first form of the covenant was made by God with Noah in Gen 9:8-17. It was a covenant of cosmic re-creation and emphasised God’s sovereign commitment. This was made formal with Abraham as a covenant of societal renewal. It promised land and descendants to Abraham, and blessing to all people of earth through him (Gen 12:2-3). Further development came with Moses where the covenant included making the descendants, or the nation, a priesthood for God (Ex 19:5-6). At this point, the human responses required were given in great detail (for example Ex 20 and the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). With David, the covenant included kingship, or God’s rule over His people (2 Sam 7:13b) where human agents symbolised God’s rule until He came Himself. Later on, through the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-34), the promise of God directly ruling His people was given.
Complete obedience was expected both to God’s appointed rulers and to the laws and the sacrificial system given through Moses. This was the normal situation for the Israelites until Christ came and is referred to as the Old Covenant.
3. New Covenant
When Christ came, that covenant was changed. The true sacrifice which the Levitical sacrificial system symbolised (that of Christ Himself) had been made, rendering that system superfluous. Now God rules individual humans directly. Christ’s sacrifice was the effective component of the original promises. This new order is referred to as the New Covenant. The writer to the Hebrews describes it as “better” (8:6) or “new” (8:13, 9:15), making the first one “obsolete” (8:13) and “abolishing” (10:9) it.
A big change has occurred, even though in essence the covenant is still the same. It is the same covenant but without the redundant trimmings. The nature of the change was not correcting a defect in the covenant-law itself but improving the human material which it had to work upon ie. the new covenant was new because it could impart a new heart.
God’s desire in all forms of the covenant is to establish the sinner in fellowship with Himself. Faith was the condition associated with all the Abrahamic promises (see for example Rom 4:1316), just as salvation requires the response of faith in the Gospel.
But the required faith is expressed differently in the Old and New Covenants. In the Old Covenant, faith found expression in obedience to the law and sacrificial worship for the maintenance and enjoyment of spiritual relationship with the Lord and each other. In the New Covenant, knowledge of the divine favour toward His people is granted when an individual comes to faith in Jesus Christ and finds forgiveness.
So the New Covenant (or the change made to the continuing covenant) is profound because now God’s people desire to do as He wants since their heart is made new. The Old Covenant expression of ritual and law-keeping, including circumcision, is now obsolete. The externalities from whose control true religion is released by the New Covenant include national origin and racial descent. The influence toward faith in the Old Covenant came from the people having been born into the covenant community (as the physical seed of Abraham) with God’s revelation as their rule of life and their spiritual heritage as a witness to the will of God. The expression of New Covenant faith takes a different form, because in Christ the sacrifices found their end and the Israelite law ceased to be the mode of administering the lives of the people of God. Accordingly, the content of faith for salvation is now very specific, and the enablement by the Spirit of God is direct. The significance and extent of the change is evident in Paul’s describing the proclamation of the gospel post-Christ to the Gentiles as ‘the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations’ (Col 1:26).
4. God’s people
God’s covenant was not made with every human but only with His elect people.
Under the Old Covenant, God’s elect are recognised as the descendants of Abraham. Other nations were not included. In the Old Covenant, ‘Israel’ signifies a community of people with a special relationship to God marked first by its religious relationship with the true God and also by its physical descent.
Infants were full participants, as the institution of circumcision shows. It is the sign and seal of the covenant. While the practice of circumcision was not unique to the Jews, its significance was. Outside of the Jewish race it was a sign of manhood, whereas Abrahamic circumcision was performed on male babies at the age of eight days. It was a sign of receiving God’s promises and belonging to Him, and no further rite or ceremony was required. They were regarded as full members of God’s covenant people from birth.
Israelites who unrepentantly disobeyed the requirements of the covenant were, however, excluded from the community despite having the covenant sign of circumcision. They were considered part of the elect until their behaviour showed otherwise (see for example Ex 19:5, Lev 20 esp. v.3, 5 Rom 2:28-29, 11:7).
Under the New Covenant the assumption of covenant membership on the basis of lineage is disturbed. The previous definition of the covenant people, belonging to the Jewish nation, is changed. The definition is now those who have a new heart. Knowledge of God under the New Covenant is a personal knowledge of God to be possessed by each individual member of the covenant community, because of the new heart (or nature) received by each.
This is demonstrated by Jesus’ baptism. He was already a properly circumcised Jew but chose to receive John’s baptism to enrol as a member of the purified and prepared people of God. Lane in his commentary on Mark (p.54) writes that “Jesus comes to John as the true Israelite whose repentance is perfect” ie. His heart was right toward God.
5. The doctrine of infant baptism
The Reformed view of infant baptism is that God’s covenant promise extends to the children of believers under the New Covenant in the same way that it extended to Jewish children under the Old Covenant, except that the sign has changed from circumcision to baptism.
John Calvin (Institutes 4,15,20 p.1321) presents a foundation for this: “God declares that he adopts our babies as his own before they are born, when he promises that he will be our God and the God of our descendants after us (Gen 17:7). Their salvation is embraced in this word. No one will dare be so insolent toward God as to deny that his promise of itself suffices for its effect.” The efficacy of both circumcision and infant baptism rest on the promise of the sovereign God based in the saving work of Christ, not the works of fallible men. For this reason, the Reformed view maintains, infant children of Christian parents should receive baptism.
Claims of the Reformers
Martin Luther is a founder of what has become known as the Reformed view. He maintained that the validity of baptising infants lies in their inability to engage in efforts or works so must be purely dependent on faith. One passage he claims for support is Psalm 106:37-38 which describes the sacrificing to idols of sons and daughters as shedding “innocent blood”. He thinks all children should be considered innocent or holy and be eligible for baptism.
But others dispute this understanding of Ps 106. For example H-J Kraus (p.321) thinks “innocent” here does not mean ‘holy before God’ as Luther asserts, but simply means ‘judicially innocent’ and may not be limited only to children. It is referring to murder, the unlawful death of any Hebrew. Such a view harmonises better with, for example, Psalm 51:5, Job 15:4, and Rom 3:23, which point strongly to the conclusion that children are from birth the very opposite of holy.
Matthew 19:14 is claimed more widely to support this view. Luther (Concerning Rebaptism,
p.242-243) maintains that the statement “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” refers to the children being “holy” and denies that it refers to their attitude. Calvin, J. Murray and Hendriksen take similar stances. All conclude with Luther that baptism should not be withheld from babies.
Calvin (Institutes 4,16,7 p.1330) seeks stronger support from the parallel accounts in Mark 10:13-15 and Luke 18:15-17, the latter specifically mentioning the word “babies”. However, both these accounts record Jesus saying: “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God LIKE A CHILD shall not enter it at all”. The use of simile that Luther denies in this incident (Concerning Rebaptism p.243) is here used by Jesus in direct reference to the babies and children brought to Him. It is more reasonable to understand this incident as referring to an attitude rather than to children.
Calvin also strongly claims that the three Greek words that could be translated as ‘children’ or ‘babies’ means infants at the breast. Other scholars (eg. Wigram, Bauer, Zerwick) see no such strict age limit. Calvin sets a clear cut limit on the age of the children on a basis that is not clear cut.
Luther also uses Matt 28:19 to defend the validity of infant baptism. He concludes that “… Christ commanded us to teach and baptise all heathen, without exception …”, by which he seems to mean baptism should be practised universally on all people of the world everywhere, irrespective of their attitude to Christ. This is a misunderstanding of the text. It commands “making disciples” of all nations, including “baptising them” in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It does not mean go and baptise everyone.
A third claim inherent in most arguments for infant baptism is tradition. Many defer to Luther, and he himself refers to the written record of early fathers such as Augustine. An example of Augustine’s thoughts on infant baptism is found in The Literal Meaning of Genesis (Book 10, ch.23, p.127): “it is a tradition of the apostles”. He offers no evidence for his view. It is weak support for such a strongly held doctrine.
Others (eg. Jeremias) draw on ‘the whole house’ formula found throughout Acts to conclude that no single member of the household was excluded from baptism. This argument deduces that the term “household” in the Old Covenant has the same meaning in the New Covenant because the New Covenant ‘household’ formula was adopted from the Old Covenant cultic language and has the same form and the same meaning as the biblical ritual formula, ie. it includes small children as well as others.
But other scholars (eg. Beasley-Murray) take issue with the principle that ‘whole’ in ‘whole household’ means all members of the household without exception. On this principle, infants must also be declared to have heard the word, received the Spirit, spoken with tongues as well as been baptised.
The traditional basis that Luther and others claim is tenuous. It provides no conclusive evidence to support the doctrine of infant baptism. In any case, while the wisdom of tradition is always worthy of fair consideration, it is not in itself sufficient to perpetrate a doctrine. Traditional practice may or may not reflect Biblical truth and can only ever be considered a guide, not a basis for doctrine.
7. Apostolic teaching
Support for infant baptism is claimed from some passages in the Acts and Epistles.
Acts 2:38-39: Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of
Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”(NASB)
Acts 2:38-39 is claimed by some almost to be a command to baptise infants. But to do so misunderstands the passage. It is better understood to say the promise of “repent, be baptised in order to receive forgiveness and Holy Spirit” is valid for the hearers and their children. So the hearers’ children, if they repent and are baptised, will be forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit.
There is no basis for applying the command to baptise independently of that to repent. Neither can the case for infant baptism be supported by claiming that the command must be applicable to the immediate audience. There is no reason to make this assumption. The general description of “all who are far off” indicates the opposite ie. that it applies equally to those not in the immediate audience. Even if it did apply only to those present, the simplest reading is that the infants and anyone else present are entitled to be baptised and receive what is promised when they too repent.
Acts 10, 16
Where some contend that Acts 10 (the conversion and baptism of Cornelius and his household) and 16 (conversion and baptism of Lydia and the jailer and their households) include infants or young ones who do not make a profession at the time, in two of the instances there is, rather, good ground to believe a profession of faith was made by all present and baptism then followed. Referring to the baptism of Cornelius’ household, Peter says in 10:44 “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message”, and it was these which he had baptised in v.48. In 16:31-32 the apostles instruct the Philippian jailer and his “household” to believe and we are told in v.34 that they did. It was these believers who were baptised in v.33.
1 Cor 7:14: For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. (NASB)
More substantial support for considering infants to be Christians is derived from 1 Cor 7:14. A believing parent in an apparently otherwise unbelieving household is said to cause the unbelieving spouse to be sanctified and the children to be holy. These words seem to take on the same meaning as for Luther in Psalm 106, so with similar logic children should be baptised. But this cannot be sustained because the spouse, though “sanctified”, is stated as being an unbeliever. Somehow the fact of being married or born to a Christian parent makes a difference, but not a difference that definitely means salvation. Rather, v.16 (How do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?) portrays their salvation as decidedly uncertain.
It is difficult to agree with Calvin and others who understand this verse to establish beyond doubt the same covenantal practice for children of Christian parents as for the children of Abraham. If there is a basis for infants to automatically receive the covenant sign of baptism then surely the same rationale must apply to the unbelieving spouse. It is untenable to claim this verse as evidence of the Abrahamic covenant being transferred directly from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.
But it is clear from this passage that “holy” stands in opposition to “unclean”, which is presumably the condition of children having only unbelieving parents. So children of a Christian parent are not unclean and yet are not able to be described as saved. Some half-way situation must be in Paul’s mind. F.F. Bruce (1&2 Corinthians, p.69) describes them as “holy by association”, “in a state of sanctification”, but “not necessarily in the sense of 1 Cor 1:2 or 6:11.” Beasley-Murray suggests such children are “brought up in the environment of faith and prayer, at home and in the Church, and are under the constant instruction of the Word of God” and describes them as “the most privileged children of all time”. It is probably reasonable to believe that, while a child with Christian parentage has no guarantee of subsequent faith, but it is a divine indication of its probability.
Col 2:11-13: … in Him 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 up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
Another passage used to support infant baptism is Col 2:11-13. Because it combines both circumcision and baptism in the one paragraph and seems to equate them as symbols, the conclusion is often drawn that the latter supersedes the former with exactly the same meaning and application. But this does not do justice to the passage. This passage is not making a statement about the symbols themselves, but is using them to teach the reality of what has happened to a person who has become a Christian. Peter O’Brien in his commentary on this verse says “It is the dying and rising with Christ theme that is central to the passage: dying with him in his death is spelled out in verse 11 by means of circumcision terminology; being buried with him in baptism is then asserted in verse 12a, while being raised with Christ through faith receives the emphasis in the latter half of this verse.” The use of both terms implies they are rightly to be understood as the Old and the New Covenant signs. But to assume baptism should be applied to infants in the same way as circumcision is to assume there is no difference between the New Covenant people and the Old Covenant people. The emphasis of the passage is clearly on non-physical circumcision ie. of the heart, and on demonstrated, rather than presumed, faith.
8. Recognising God’s people
The real point of issue is how the covenantal people of God are recognised. We fallible humans are unable to detect with infallible accuracy God’s work in people. But it is nonetheless our responsibility to discern as best we can who is included in His people, and therefore eligible to receive the sign of identification. A crucial error in the doctrine of infant baptism is failure to note the change of criteria for who is included from the Old Covenant to the New. This error overlooks the key theme of the book of Hebrews summed up in 8:13a: “By calling this covenant ‘new’, he has made the first one obsolete”. The right to circumcision, in Old Covenant times, was grounded in a person’s physical attachment to the house and lineage of Abraham. It was the sign of a nation’s separation to God from the defilement of the heathen world. Whereas, according to the New Covenant “all those in every nation who share Abraham’s faith are Abraham’s seed” and are therefore eligible for baptism. F.F. Bruce (This is That, p.53, 54), referring to Eph 2:12 and 19, points out that by such faith those who were once ‘strangers to the covenant of promise’ become ‘members of the household of God’. The allegory of Gal 4:24 agrees with Paul’s insistence that the true offspring of Abraham are those who reproduce Abraham’s faith, whether they be Jews or Gentiles. The status of a nation belongs to the very concept of Israel in the Old Covenant but this element is lacking in the New Covenant understanding of the church.
The key point is that while lineage can be discerned from the moment of birth, faith cannot be discerned until it is professed. Both criteria are open to error on our part regarding true regeneration. Infant baptism supposedly removes the unreliable human element of determining who should receive the covenant sign but in reality it is no more reliable. Luther states (Babylonian Captivity, p.73) “infants are aided by the faith of others, namely, those who bring them for baptism” and Glenn Davies refines the same thought when he states (Why Bother with Baptism? p.4) “it is the parents’ faith in the promises of God that gives them assurance that their children belong to God and are saved.” Luther also states (Babylonian Captivity, p.64) “the power of baptism depends not so much on the faith or use of the one who confers it as on the faith or use of the one who receives it”. The usual line of infant baptisers is that faith comes later, when the child is capable of such. In disputing the Anabaptists, Luther (Concerning Rebaptism, p.239, 247) claims adult baptism is defective because there is no certainty of the faith of the adult being baptised. But there is no more certainty about the faith of Luther’s “others” or Davies’ “parents” than that of professing believers who come for baptism, and there can be no more certainty whether an infant has faith or not, nor about its future life. In the end, it comes down to the individual under consideration having faith of their own. If the child must appropriate the covenant in his own person by faith to be truly a covenantee, is not this to say that believers are the true covenant children?
In Romans 10:6-11 Paul makes the point that faith, not works, is the path to righteousness. It comes in the middle of a discourse about election and the failure of many of the Israelites to be included as God’s people. Keeping the Law could not gain them salvation, the covenantal sign of circumcision meant nothing in many cases. The observable evidence of true righteousness he cites for us fallible humans is heart-felt confession of belief in Jesus. Unlike Luther who claims “confession is neither here nor there” (Concerning Rebaptism, p.240), these verses of Scripture affirm that it can properly be taken as evidence of election.
Under the New Covenant, God’s elect are recognised as those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and repent of their sin. No limitation now applies on the basis of nationality (nor any other attribute – Gal 3:26-28). The covenant sign is to be given to all who profess Christ.
What is the value of the covenant sign?
The Reformed understanding is that a sign is given which signifies the reception of the covenant promises by the covenant people, but this may not mean the possessor of the sign has appropriated its meaning. Circumcision is a sign given as a seal that righteousness comes through faith (cf. Rom 4:11) in God’s promises concerning justification. It therefore served to identify the recipient as one of God’s chosen people. The value of the covenant sign to an unbelieving Jew was that the sign and the ceremonies unique to his people reminded him that righteousness comes by faith, and that he participated in the temporal blessings promised to God’s nation. It was for his temporal good. But it also served as a condemnation of his eternal future if he did not repent. Pagans, however, had neither of these benefits. To them the covenant sign was one of condemnation. It showed the way to relationship with the true God of which they were not part.
Baptism is a sign of new life (“an appeal for a good conscience” 1 Peter 3:21) through Jesus’ resurrection. It identifies the recipient as one of God’s chosen people, one who has righteousness through faith in God’s promises (of justification through Jesus’ death and resurrection). Reception of (baptism in) the Holy Spirit is “the seal of our inheritance” (Eph 1:3) which, being the distinguishing feature of the New Covenant, is also signified by water baptism. The value of the covenant sign to an apostate professor of faith is the reminder of the promise of righteousness through faith in Christ which he once claimed and serves as condemnation of his eternal future if he does not repent. The value of the covenant sign to an unbeliever is condemnation ie. it shows the way to relationship with the true God of which they are not part. This is the same for those who have Christian or non-Christian parents. Like the pagans under the Old Covenant, unbelievers do not qualify to receive the sign, especially with its added significance of having received the Holy Spirit.
Esau and Ishmael are an example of this. Infant baptisers find in their example a rationale for baptising infants ie. all descendants of the blood line of God’s people should validly receive the covenant sign. Paul, in Gal 4:21-31, says the very opposite: blood line was no guarantee of belonging to God. It is a false basis because Ishmael is declared to “NOT be an heir with the son of the free woman” (v.30) yet was rightly circumcised. Those who are God’s people are “like Isaac, children of promise” (v.28), the promise of becoming children of God through faith (3:26). There is nothing in baptism that corresponds to Ishmael’s circumcision. The basis for receiving the covenant sign for him was lineage or family, but now the basis is faith.
Circumcision became redundant because it belonged to the Old Covenant and is replaced by baptism under the New Covenant. Both circumcision and baptism should be understood as external signs of belonging to God (ie. being part of His elect) and therefore recipients of His covenant promise. They are for the benefit of the person himself and for others, and are based on external, and therefore possibly misleading, criteria, which are discerned by fallible humans, possibly erroneously. Apostates under the Old Covenant were Jews who had been circumcised but did not live faithfully. Apostates under the New Covenant are those who profess faith who have been baptised but do not live faithfully.
How should children be considered?
A common assertion of infant baptisers is that the children of believing parents are heirs of all the promises of the covenant and therefore should receive the sign of the covenant – baptism.
However, the New Covenant opens the promises of God to all humanity, not only to children of God’s people (see Acts 2:21, 39, Rom 10:12-13, Gal 3:26-28). The promised blessings to the nations in the Abrahamic covenant have taken a new form: they apply to all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ, irrespective of their lineage. In what way then, under the New Covenant, compared to the children of believers, do the promises of God not rest on the children of unbelievers? The children of believers are indeed heirs of these promises, but so are the children of unbelievers. If baptism signifies merely that the promises apply to/rest on people, then we can only conclude that the children of unbelievers are entitled to baptism just as children of believers.
God’s election under the New Covenant includes infants, as it did under the Old Covenant. But there is no basis for considering them all elect, not even those of believers. Which infants are elect will be evident when a profession is made, at which time they are no longer infants. Scripture teaches that an outward sign guarantees nothing, whereas demonstrated faith gives a clear guideline to who is in the kingdom (eg. Gal 5:6 and 6:13-15). Baptism should be performed then.
One objection to this view is that it means only those that exercise faith are saved and therefore infants are excluded from salvation because they cannot exercise faith. Not so. This objection shows confusion of the issue. God is capable of saving anyone, including infants. He is capable of giving to anyone the gift of faith, including infants. Therefore it seems reasonable to assume some people will be saved from infancy. The confusion arises because we presume to know what only God can know. The Bible gives no clear basis for assuming the infants of believers to be the recipients of saving faith any more than the infants of unbelievers. The Biblical information weighs in favour of assuming any person to be unsaved in the absence of evidence to the contrary. God may well know which infants are saved, but for us to consider them so in the absence of positive, observable evidence (as we would for anyone older) is to go against the weight of Scripture. An infant may well be exercising faith but by what criteria can we perceive it? Simply because we cannot observe their faith (or more accurately the effect of their faith) does not mean they are not saved. But it is presumptuous to assume they are saved and to baptise them as if they are. When we can observe evidence of their faith then it is appropriate to baptise them, by which time they are beyond infancy.
Davies (Why Bother with Baptism? p.8) points out that Paul, when writing to the saints at Ephesus and Colossae, includes children, exhorting them “in the Lord” (Eph 6:1, Col 3:20). He claims this means that Paul recognises them as covenant Christians, and that therefore children of Christian parents today can rightly be considered Christians. However, these passages do not imply this. Paul is addressing Christian households certainly, but the categories he uses are general, to address those who are Christians within each. That is, Paul had something to say to husbands that are Christians, wives that are Christians, children that are Christians and slaves that are Christians. He was not making a statement about the state of the souls of all in these general groups. If this were not so then, by the same logic, all slaves in the home of Christian parents should be considered Christians, as the last part of Col 3:22 addresses them in similar vein to the children in 3:20, and so should all wives of Christian husbands, irrespective of their personal belief, on the basis of 3:18.
Some proponents of infant baptism counter that this makes the New Covenant economy less beneficent than the Old. Their objection is not well founded. The change of the means of recognising God’s people from lineage to profession is equally beneficent to children of believers as was the Old Covenant ie. it promises them nothing less (salvation on the basis of Christ’s death) and bars them from nothing more (judgement from God on the basis of an unrepentant, faithless life), and at the same time opens God’s promises to all Gentiles, children as well as adults.
Some feel that to not practise infant baptism is the same as excluding children from church.
This misunderstands both the doctrine of the church and the criterion given to us for recognising God’s people. A careful distinction needs to be maintained between the true church (ie. the elect), the local, social expression of the church (which may include unregenerate people who give every appearance of being Christians) and denominations (which are para-church organisations, not the church at all). The church by definition is those who are God’s chosen people ie. the elect. It is impossible for any human to know infallibly who is included in this number, and, because it is God who chooses, it is impossible for any human to exclude anyone from it. However, responsibility for the make up of the local church on earth has been given to those humans to whom the task of oversight has been entrusted. They are to discern who is included. The qualification given in Scripture under the New Covenant for discerning who is elect is a credible profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful overseers will recognise those who make such a profession as belonging to the church and consider them to be elect. However, as they are fallible humans, the assessment of the overseers is open to error, which means, despite all good intent, unbelievers may possibly be deemed regenerate and therefore among the elect. Any other people who choose to attend the social gathering called ‘church’ are most welcome, and as such form part of that social grouping called church, but it is false to necessarily describe them as one of God’s people. Children are to be regarded as belonging to the true church if they credibly confess Christ. Children of believers who have not made a credible confession are to be regarded as members of the social grouping called church but not as part of the elect. To baptise children of believers who have not made a credible confession is presuming to call them elect on a basis not given in Scripture.
11. Problems with believer’s baptism
Believer’s baptism means baptism after an expression of belief from a person capable of doing so.
Many of the Baptist persuasion oppose infant baptism by disjoining the Old and New Covenants, calling the former carnal and the latter spiritual. The respective signs are described similarly. This reasoning does not appreciate the Biblical theological scope of the covenant of grace outlined earlier and places circumcision and baptism in opposition instead of harmony.
Believer’s baptism is often taken as clear evidence of salvation/election on the greater certainty of a person being saved if they profess faith for themselves compared to the uncertainty of another expressing faith on their behalf. However there are numerous instances of lapsed Christians who have received believer’s baptism. Their profession is no more reliable than if someone had professed for them. It seems they did not know any better than anyone else whether they were regenerate or not. It is obviously better that a person make a personal claim to faith than allowing others to do it for them, indeed if it never happens there is no basis for considering them to be saved at all. But the statement of an individual is not the basis of salvation, it is simply an evidence of it and can be given falsely. To consider believer’s baptism a certain proof of salvation or election is erroneous. Only God knows who are His. None of us can presume to be included until we are demonstrated to be faithful at the end. The best it does is reduce the risk of administering the covenant sign erroneously.
A danger of believer’s baptism is imposed legalism. The idea of setting up a community of ‘proved’ Christians, who would then be admitted to baptism, is not found in the Apostolic Church. To do so is Pharisaical, placing works as a condition rather than a consequence of salvation.
Proponents of believer’s baptism often assume children are ineligible because they cannot make a credible confession of faith ie. children do not understand what they are saying and may well be trying simply to please adults. This too is erroneous. The Bible places no age limitation on faith, and because salvation is the result of God’s calling His elect, there is no reason to assume that children cannot profess faith truthfully. Some wisdom must be exercised by those administering though. Children, especially younger ones, are inclined to make statements of fantasy or conform to their parents’ desires. The life of a child should be watched carefully to assess how credible their confession is. If there is consistency of life and profession, then on what basis should a child be barred?
The means by which we humans identify the recipients of God’s covenant sign changed from lineage under the Old Covenant to profession under the New Covenant, along with the sign itself which changed from circumcision to baptism. There is no question that the promise of God in Christ is the only basis of salvation for His covenant people and that a profession of faith has no ultimate bearing on the efficacy of the promise. The covenant sign must be administered on the Scriptural basis for assessing if a person is among the elect. A credible confession is the only clear basis given for the New Covenant.
This means infants, whether or not of Christian parents, are, like everyone else, better considered Christians by their profession. Some infants may well be regenerate from birth but the overall message of the Bible is to assume all are unregenerate in their natural state, the majority of people remaining that way for eternity. It is inconsistent with New Covenant evidence to assume that any particular class of people, infants or otherwise, should be treated as if they were regenerate without displaying the only guide given to us by which to make an assessment.
Rather than presume on God and continue with a practice that has the potential to cause many to think they are right with God when they are not, it would be better to baptise when the words and the life of a person make an harmonious profession of faith.
Scripture is not clear on the topic of baptism so a dogmatic stance, and the attendant tension and division between believers, is inappropriate. Infant baptism is not well supported by Scripture nor the historical bases usually appealed to. There are significant doubts about every major point. However, there is substantial but not conclusive support for believers’ baptism. I appeal therefore for an attitude to the doctrine and practice of baptism that is in accord with Biblical evidence.
|The Literal Meaning of Genesis Ancient Christian Writers No. 42, Vol II New York: Newman Press, 1982|
|Bauer, W.||A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Chicago: University of Chicago, 1958|
Beasley-Murray, G.R. Baptism in the New Testament Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1962
|This is That Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1976|
|I & II Corinthians, NCB, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980|
|Institutes of the Christian Religion Library of Christian Classics (ed. J.T. McNeill) Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960|
|Why Bother with Baptism? 1992, unpublished book|
|Matthew Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1973|
|Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries London: SCM Press, 1960|
|Psalms 60-150 Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989|
|The Gospel of Mark, NICNT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974|
|“Babylonian Captivity of the Church” Works Vol 36 Gen. Ed. H.T.
Lehmann Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958, 57-81
“Concerning Rebaptism” Works Vol 40 Gen. Ed. H.T. Lehmann
Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958, 229-262
|Christian Baptism Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962|
|Colossians, Philemon, WBC No. 44, Waco: Word Books, 1982|
|The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983.|
|Zerwick, M.||A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament Rome: Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1966|
A Better Understanding of Baptism – download the full .pdf version
Rockworker has provided his thoughts to better understand the Christian practise of Baptism. He covers the theology of Baptism, the relevant Biblical passages, Christian Traditional approaches, baptism of children, baptism of believers, Baptism as a Covenant sign, and Rockworker’ own conclusions. [editor]
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