Baptism really isn’t a difficult topic, but it’s become difficult by all the history, tradition and baggage associated with the different interpretations of this ordinance. It’s a beautiful ordinance, and it’s too bad there’s so much misunderstanding about it!
Here’s the bottom line; baptism doesn’t “do” anything to you or for you. It’s a picture of what the triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) has already done in a believer’s life. This means it’s only for repentant, professing believers – not infants.
There are good reasons why the Baptist position on baptism is correct, but that’s not my goal, here. Instead, I just want to look at what baptism means. What significance does baptism have? What does it mean? What spiritual truth does it convey? How does it convey this truth?
One good place to go is the Book of Romans.
In Romans 5, the Apostle Paul gives us the classic comparison between Adam and Christ; the two great representatives for humanity (Rom 5:18). We’re born belonging in Adam’s camp; the first man who disobeyed God and brought ruin to creation and to himself. We’re all fruit from the poisonous tree that is Adam; his disobedience was the fountainhead that poisoned the well, and that’s why you and I are born as sinful people who belong to Satan, not God. As Paul wrote, Christ’s perfect life and sacrificial death leads to justification and eternal life for everyone who repents and believes – which is what Paul explains next (Rom 5:19-21).
With that context in place, we now turn to our passage. Paul writes:
The New Testament gives a single, one-size-fits-all description of church membership. There’s no female membership vs. male membership. There’s no Gentile membership vs. Jewish membership. There is no slave membership vs. free membership. And there’s no young children membership vs. adult membership. There is, simply put, “membership.” And here’s the rub: New Testament membership includes tasks that are an unnatural fit for children.
Some of my best friends and my most admired heroes of the Christian faith believe in the practice of baptizing infants and bringing them into the membership of the church apart from any profession of faith. My love and respect for these dear brothers and venerable men of God has on more than one occasion inclined me to reconsider whether they’ve got it right and I’ve got it wrong.
But after “revisiting” the issue several times, I’m still a Baptist. I could offer several reasons. But one reason involves the teaching of a text that’s often overlooked in the Infant Baptism (Paedobaptism) vs. Believer Baptism (Credobaptism) debate. That text is John 1:12-13.
But to as many as received [Jesus Christ], He granted the legal warrant to become children of God, even to the ones who believe in His name, who were born not of bloods, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the decision of a husband, but of God (author’s translation).
This passage teaches that the conferral of covenant sonship status under the New Covenant is limited no longer to the Jewish nation and is predicated no longer on natural descent but on supernatural descent, the fruit and evidence of which is saving faith in Jesus the Messiah. Such a conclusion runs contrary to the practice of baptizing non-professing children of believers and bringing them into the membership of a New Covenant church. Consider the following three observations and their implications for baptism and church membership:
The Council of Trent was a key event in the so-called Roman Catholic “counter reformation.” It was held in Trento, Italy, from 1545 – 1563. This excerpt is from Trent’s remarks about baptism:1
CANON I.—If any one saith, that the baptism of John had the same force as the baptism of Christ: let him be anathema.
CANON II.—If any one saith, that true and natural water is not of necessity for baptism, and, on that account, wrests, to some sort of metaphor, those words of our Lord Jesus Christ: Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost:1 let him be anathema.
CANON III.—If any one saith, that in the Roman Church, which is the mother and mistress of all churches, there is not the true doctrine concerning the sacrament of baptism: let him be anathema.
CANON IV.—If any one saith, that the baptism which is even given by heretics in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, with the intention of doing what the Church doth, is not true baptism: let him be anathema.
CANON V.—If any one saith, that baptism is free, that is, not necessary unto salvation: let him be anathema.
CANON VI.—If any one saith, that one who has been baptized can not, even if he would, lose grace, let him sin ever so much, unless he will not believe: let him be anathema.
A crocodile has killed a Protestant pastor who was baptising followers near a lake in southern Ethiopia. Docho Eshete was conducting the ceremony for about 80 people on Sunday morning at Lake Abaya in Arba Minch town's Merkeb Tabya district. Residents and police told BBC Amharic a crocodile leapt from the water during the baptism and attacked him. Pastor Docho died after being bitten on his legs, back and hands.
The book Apostolic Tradition is a Christian text which dates from the 3rd century A.D. It’s traditionally attributed to a man named Hippolytus, though the work may well be an edited compilation. It describes liturgical practices from the 3rd century, so it’s a very interesting time-capsule of early church practice. One translator cautioned that, just because liturgy reads a certain way in Apostolic Tradition, we shouldn’t blindly assume this reflected actual practice; this document could be compiled musings of several armchair liturgists, after all!1
Here, in this excerpt, we see what Apostolic Tradition had to say about the ordinance of baptism. There is some very interesting context to this account (paragraphs 15 – 19) that space will not permit me to provide.
Of those who will receive baptism:2
When those who are to receive baptism are chosen their lives should be examined; whether they lived uprightly as catechumens, whether they honored the widows, whether they visited the sick, whether they were thorough in performing good works; and if those who brought them bear witness that they have acted thus, so they should hear the Gospel.