Baptism (Baptist view)

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BAPTISM (BAPTIST VIEW). Christian baptism is that initiatory washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit which the risen Lord commissioned His apostles to administer to all His followers as a mark of their discipleship (Matt 28:19, 20). The blessings associated with baptism in the NT are forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16); union with Christ (Gal 3:26f.); the receiving of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38); and membership in the body of Christ which is His Church (1 Cor 12:13).

Baptists have generally taught that the outward rite confirms and seals to the recipient the knowledge of these blessings as they are apprehended by faith, rather than causing and conveying them by its own proper working. That is to say, Baptists stress the cognitive rather than the sacramental efficacy of the rite. (For this reason the majority of Baptists avoid even the word “sacrament” when speaking of baptism.)

Baptism is a proclamation on God’s part, signifying by the outward sign, to those who believe, that their sins are washed away by the blood of Christ, that they have been united with Him by His Spirit in the newness of His resurrection life, and are partakers of all the benefits which He has secured for His people. On man’s part, baptism is a public confession of his sin and a sign of his giving up of himself to Christ to walk in newness of life, as the Gospel enjoins.

In keeping with their emphasis upon the symbolical and cognitive nature of the ordinance, Baptists differ from the majority of Protestants in that they believe that the proper mode (many would insist the only mode) of baptism is immersion, and esp. that none but believers should receive the rite.


The hallmark of the Baptist view of Baptism, however, is not immersion—as is popularly supposed—but the restricting of the ordinance to believers. In insisting on believers’ baptism (or “conversion baptism,” as it is sometimes called), Baptists differ from other Christians. The great majority of confessing Christians have, from ancient times till the present, baptized infants as well as adults. In fact, it is undoubtedly true that most Christians, if one takes into account all the centuries of Christian history, have been baptized in infancy, having been brought to the font by their parents or sponsors, rather than having come by their own consent and volition. Because of the stress on believers’ baptism in Baptist circles and the importance of this issue for the understanding of baptism (witness the continued and lively discussion of infant baptism in contemporary theological circles), the case against infant baptism shall be briefly reviewed, using it further to illumine the Baptist understanding of the ordinance.

It is beyond cavil that in the NT faith is the threshold over which one must step into the Christian life, a faith which is confessed in the act of baptism. The clear structure of apostolic history is kerygma—that is, spiritfilled proclamation of the message of salvation, believing acceptance of the message, baptism, and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. In order to justify infant baptism one must somehow set aside this ordered sequence. From the earliest moments of the Reformation, Paedobaptists have struggled with this problem. Though it cannot be doubted that the radicalism and intransigence of many of the Anabaptists drove the Reformers to a churchly defense of the status quo, yet their polemic against the Anabaptists is for the most part inferior and unconvincing theological writing. The crux of the problem is: how can one escape the medieval doctrine of ex opere operato, which effectually unites the grace of cleansing and renewal to the water, save by affirming nullum sacramentum sine fide (where there is no faith, there is no sacrament)? If faith is indispensable to the sacrament, so that where there is no faith, there is no true baptism, how then shall infants, who cannot confess their faith, properly receive baptism?

The oldest solution is fides vicaria, faith by proxy, a faith confessed by those who bring the child to baptism as godparents and sponsors. At the time of the Reformation, Luther rejected this view of Rome and taught in its place that the infant has faith. Calvin held that a seed faith was implanted in the children of believing parents, in virtue of the covenant promise.

Since the NT knows nothing of vicarious faith, not to mention infant faith, it is admitted on all sides that the child must in due course publicly confess his own faith. Hence, infant baptism is unfinished until consummated by some sort of confirmation. Here evangelical Paedobaptists find themselves in a dilemma. If they stress confirmation, they are threatened with a third sacrament; but without it, the evangelical principle of faith, as necessary to the sacraments, is jeopardized. Some have sought to relieve this problem by discovering corroborative evidence for infant baptism in the NT, as well as in the OT practice of circumcising male children on the eighth day as the sign of the covenant promise.

As for the NT evidence, it is admitted that there is no express instance of infant baptism. However, there are several occurrences of household baptism (Acts 10:47, 48; 16:15, 29-34; 1 Cor 1:16; 16:15), and Paedobaptists have regularly appealed to these. It appears to Baptists, however, that these instances reflect a picture, not of parents converted and whole families baptized, but rather of whole families converted and baptized

Even more prominent than household baptism in the Paedobaptist lit. is the appeal to Jesus’ blessing of children (Mark 10:14-16 and parallels). To this writer it seems hardly tenable to argue, as Baptists often do, that these Scriptures pertain only to those who are childlike in spirit, esp. since Luke uses the word for literal infants. But, if it be granted that Jesus gave His blessing to infants and little children, this hardly seems to imply that they should be baptized. Baptists have no objection to bringing infants to the Lord and invoking His blessing upon them. (Services of infant dedication are frequently held in Baptist churches.) It is one thing to bring children to Christ that He may bless them; it is another to bring them to the font. “See,” said Spurgeon, preaching on this text, “that you read the word as it is written and you will find no water in it, but Jesus only. Are the water and Christ the same thing? Nay, here is a wide difference, as wide as between Rome and Jerusalem...between false doctrine and the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Children Brought to Christ Not to the Font, a sermon delivered July 24, 1864.)

Because of the indecisive character of the arguments for infant baptism from the NT data, those who favor the practice have put a major emphasis on the argument that the NT age is the fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham, as signed and sealed by circumcision. Therefore baptism may be said to take the place of circumcision, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 2:11, 12; “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God....” Once it is established that baptism takes the place of circumcision, it may be inferred—Paedobaptists plead—that infants of believing parents are to receive the sign now as they did circumcision in the OT. Calvin calls this the “whole of the subject” (Institutes, IV, XVI, 24).

Admittedly Baptists have, for the most part, failed to appreciate the full implication of this argument. It is true that the NT fulfills the OT, and it may even be said that circumcision is to the OT what baptism is to the NT. But the weakness of the Paedobaptist argument is that it stresses the continuity in redemptive history without allowing due place for the discontinuity in redemptive history. The significant difference between the age of type and anticipation on the one hand, and the age of fulfillment on the other, is not sufficiently appreciated. The Paedobaptist argues from the OT concept of a literal seed to be circumcised, to the conclusion that the children of Christians are a literal seed now to be baptized. But the NT teaches that one becomes the seed of Abraham by faith, not by birth or heredity. It is for this reason that Baptists do not see the force of the argument from 1 Corinthians 7:14, that children are to be baptized because Paul refers to them as holy (ἅγιος, G41). In the context he is discussing the problem of mixed marriage, and if “holy” means such children are candidates for baptism, then the unbelieving spouse who is “sanctified” (ἅγιάζω) should also receive baptism. As for the alleged parallel between circumcision and baptism, if the NT is the fulfillment of the OT, then as circumcision belonged to all the natural seed of Abraham in the age of type and anticipation, so baptism belongs to all his spiritual seed in the age of fulfillment. Who are the spiritual seed of Abraham? Are they not all those who walk in the steps of his faith? (Cf. Rom 4:11, 12). But this is the same thing as to say that all believers are to be baptized, which is the Baptist position.

Bibliography

R. E. O. White, The Biblical Doctrine of Initiation (1960); W. Carr, Baptism, Conscience and Clue for the Church (1964); G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism Today and Tomorrow (1966).