Dr. Randy White
I was recently asked a question about baptism and sanctification that stumped me. Upon investigation, I learned that the one asking the question came from such a different angle that we were practically speaking a different language.
Baptism in the protestant world varies from adult baptism (more accurately, believer’s baptism) to infant baptism (called pedo-baptism by theologian types!). Today, “baptism” is done by dunking, pouring, or sprinkling. It is done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (except within Oneness Pentecostalism where their incorrect view of the Trinity leads them to baptize only in the name of Jesus). Those who dunk mostly do so by leaning backward, but some (e.g. the Brethren Church) lean forward. Most who dunk do so one time under three names, while a few do so three times, once for each of the persons of the Trinity. Keeping all of this in mind, we see that, even though Baptism is fundamental for Protestants, there is no consensus on the correct manner of baptism.
I contend, however, that baptism can be done incorrectly and should be weighed heavily. Let’s consider the candidate, the conduct, and the context of Baptism.
The Candidate: Who should be baptized?
There are really only two options for baptism: infant or “adult.” Adult baptism is a misnomer. I know of no group that truly only baptizes “adults.” Rather than speak of adult baptism, we should speak of Believer’s baptism. In that light, the two options we actually have are unbeliever’s baptism and believer’s baptism.
Unbeliever’s Baptism: The Baptism of Infants
Since the days of Emperor Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity, infant baptism has taken root in the church. When church and state were married, entrance into one was entrance into the other; the Roman Empire became “the Holy Roman Empire;” baptism became the birth-certificate for the empire. Since one could only be a citizen of the empire if they were a member of the church, infant baptism became a political necessity.
Church leaders, of course, could not make such a radical change in baptismal rites without first creating a theological base, so they went to work creating a doctrine of infant (unbeliever’s) baptism. This doctrine would require two elements: Biblical example and Biblical teaching.
They ran into trouble right from the start, realizing that there simply is no Biblical example for unbeliever’s baptism. No New Testament scripture speaks explicitly of the baptism of infants. Those who support such baptism typically refer to scriptures which speak of the “whole household” (Acts 16:31-33) being baptized, but such reference is threadbare, at best. Since they could not find examples in the New Testament, they turned to the Old Testament and found the sign of circumcision. Borrowing the sign of the land covenant God gave to the children of Abraham, the new theologians of the Holy Roman Empire declared Baptism to be a new covenant circumcision.
Problems with this are numerous. First, it dishonors the real covenant that was made with the children of Abraham and sets aside that everlasting covenant, replacing it with the church. It was not by mistake that those who practice infant baptism are almost never pro-Israel (Zionist) in outlook. They are steeped in a tradition which took the most basic sign and seal of the covenant with Abraham and adapted it to their own political needs. Replacement theology in which the church became the New Israel is only a short step from here.
Second, circumcision was given only to male children. Girls were recipients of the covenant through their fathers and husbands. The adaptation of circumcision into baptism ignores this fact.
But the biggest problem with the morphing of circumcision to baptism is that there is no theological or Biblical justification. Circumcision belongs to the Jews; the covenant remains in effect; it has not been set aside. The Abrahamic Covenant, symbolized in circumcision, is not the Old Covenant. It is that Law that has been fulfilled, not the Abrahamic covenant. To use the rite of the Abrahamic covenant as foundational for a New Testament observance is robbery of that which God has given to the Jews.
Biblical teaching is on even more shaky ground than the Biblical example. There simply isn’t any. Thus, those who believe in infant baptism create a doctrine of “sealing” in baptism. The Westminster Confession of Faith states it this way: [Baptism is] a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life. Further, it is to be given “Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents”
This statement has huge problems, especially when connected to earlier verbiage in the statement, where Baptism is “unto him [who is baptized] a sign and seal…of regeneration…” If it is such a seal, why is it given to those who have not yet been regenerated, remitted of sins, given up their lives to God through Jesus, experienced walking in new life, etc.? This point seems clearly to say that Baptism of the infants of believing parents produces “his engrafting into Christ.” Such thought would, of course, be heresy. The statement attempts to deny such a charge by stating that “The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered.” However, it goes on to say, “yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.” How one can hold to any efficacy in baptism for the conferring of Grace is beyond me, and well beyond Scripture.
Believer’s Baptism: A display of faith
Believer’s Baptism, properly viewed, has no “sealing” effects whatsoever. Believer’s baptism is totally symbolic in nature, displaying the object of faith for the believer. Unbeliever’s baptism is based on circumcision as a sign and seal of the covenant. Believer’s baptism is not based on Jewish circumcision, but rather an outgrowth of Jewish Baptism.
When John came preaching and baptizing, baptism was not a new observance. Those being baptized in the Jordan were not being baptized for the first time, and they were not surprised by baptism nor did they view it as a new and unique observance. Baptism had been common among Jews for centuries. It took place in the micvah, as well as rivers and other bodies of water, and was ceremonial in nature. It was symbolic of repentance and cleansing.
But John’s baptism is not believer’s baptism. This is clear in Acts 19:3-5, where those who were baptized by John were baptized again. John’s baptism was Jewish, preparing the nation in repentance for the arrival of the Messiah. Believer’s baptism is an outgrowth of Jewish baptism, but symbolizes the object of our faith rather than the outcome of our faith. That is, true believer’s baptism is a proclamation of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Conduct: How should Baptism be carried out?
The mode of Baptism must portray that which is proclaimed. When a believer is immersed, the death, burial, and resurrection is visibly portrayed. That portrayal is the foundation of the salvation of the believer. The Westminster Confession says that, in Baptism Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person. I would, of course, have to totally disagree with this. The English word Baptism comes from Greek word (baptizo) which means “to dip”. I’m not sure how you can say “Dipping is not necessary when dipping.” Saying that baptism is “rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water” is simply making up your own rules out of thin air. Scriptural baptism is never anything besides dipping or plunging. Modern “baptism” includes pouring or sprinkling, but that only came about after the close of the New Testament.
Baptism, to be true to grammar, must come through dipping, that is, by total immersion. This is the only mode that is portrayed in the New Testament as well as in the archaeological remains of ancient Judaism.
Not only is immersion necessary for scriptural baptism, but because it is a proclamation of faith, it must be done after a person’s faith has been placed in Christ, recognized, and confessed by the baptismal candidate. In Acts 8, after the Ethiopian Eunuch heard and responded to Philip’s proclamation of Jesus from the Old Testament Scriptures, the Eunuch saw water and wanted to be baptized. When he asked, “What prevents me from being baptized?” Phillip’s answer was “If you believe, you may!”
The Westminster Confession says that those who actually profess faith in (and, interestingly, adds obedience unto Christ to the profession of faith) should be baptized, but continues to say also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized. Since the confession has already stated that Baptism is a sign and seal of regeneration and a person’s ingrafting in Christ, it comes dangerously close to saying that baptism produces the regeneration and ingrafting. Any idea that infants should be baptized can only be drawn by inference from scripture references which speak of families and households being baptized. The confession goes on to speak of the efficacy of baptism for such infants. While such efficacy (the word means “inherent power”) is not tied to that moment of time wherein [baptism] is administered…the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost to all to whom such grace belongs according to the counsel of God’s own will. I wonder why, if such grace is coming and will definitely come according to the counsel of God’s own will, it would need Baptism to confer such grace.
The Context: What does Baptism mean?
Baptism is not a seal. The Holy Spirit is the only seal we have in salvation. Baptism is rather a symbol of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is the object of our faith. When an individual becomes a believer, their desire for proclamation and obedience combine to display the work of Christ in a public way that forever signifies them as saved under His work, not their own. “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4–7, NASB95)
Note that the washing of regeneration was not done by baptism, nor on the basis of deeds which we have done, but was a matter of God’s grace.
Baptism is a display of God’s grace in the work of Jesus Christ by the one who has professed faith in Christ. It is done by immersion, after salvation, and for symbolic reasons. Such are, and always have been, the criteria of Scriptural baptism.
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