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::: Scenario Experiment for Baptists: Infant Baptism and Church Membership :::

A Question For Baptists :: How would you counsel a young married couple who 1) want to join your church but have only been baptized as infants in a Presbyterian church and who 2) do not think they need to be baptized at your church since they were baptized as infants in the Presbyterian church?

:: One Possible Distinctly Baptist Approach to this Scenario :: 

First, as a preliminary point, I would make sure this couple—let’s call them the Robertson’s—understood why the church practices baptism in the first place: because Christ commanded it (Mt 28:19-20).  After this, the first thing I would want to establish at length is the meaning of baptism.  The reason I would start here is because unless one first understands the meaning of baptism, it is harder to discern the importance of doing it one way or the other or administering it to only certain people and excluding others.  In other words, the answer to the question of the proper subjects of baptism (and also mode) flows logically and naturally from a discussion of the meaning of baptism itself.  My chief text in this endeavor would be Romans 6:1-11 and Colossians 2:11-12 where the emphasis is on dying with Christ and being raised to new life.[1] After reading through these texts, I would hope to conclude to the Robertson’s satisfaction that baptism symbolizes chiefly one’s death to sin (or the death of the “old man”) and new life in Christ (or “the new man”). 

Furthermore, in accordance with the way the apostles appeared to understand the role of baptism, it is the initiation right or “way of entry” into the Christian church.  I would walk them through the earliest examples of Christian baptisms carried out by the apostles in accordance with the command of Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20—Acts 2:37; 8:12-17, 35-38; 9:18 cf. 22:16; 10:44-48; 16:13-15, 30-34; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:14-16.  My objective would be to show that in each case, the pattern is basically the same: people hear the gospel, believe, and are baptized as a way of making public confession of their faith in Christ and entering the fellowship of the church. 

Certain passages, however, might demand special attention, for they are often understood to give early accounts of infant baptism (Acts 16:13-15, 30-34; 18:8).  In the case of Lydia, it is said that she “and her household” were baptized (Acts 16:15).  Here I would say something like this:

Now, it is possible that Lydia had children, perhaps even infants.  Yet it would be speculative—especially in light of the meaning of baptism and the pattern we see in the book of Acts where faith and repentance precede baptism—to conclude that since Lydia’s household might have had infants, we should understand that she in fact did have infants and that they were baptized.  The text nowhere mentions that Lydia’s household included infants, although one might suppose it hypothetically possible.  Furthermore, the narratives in Acts are abbreviated, and when we compare this account with the account found in Acts 18:8 (“Crispus … believed in the Lord with all his household”), one should understand this account to imply that the gospel message was also proclaimed in the hearing of Lydia’s household and they believed and so were baptized. 

The only other case where the “household” language is used in connection with baptism is Acts 16:30-34.  Here, however, the condensed nature of the narrative is even more apparent: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:30-34).  Without understanding the text to have implied that the apostle Paul also preached the gospel to Cornelius’ household, we would be forced to conclude that Cornelius’ household—both adults and infants—were saved through Cornelius’ faith.  Not even Protestants who hold to infant baptism believe such a thing as this is possible.  Therefore, to read these texts as though they were early accounts of “household” baptisms—including infants—is to misunderstand the elliptical nature of narrative flow of the book of Acts.

Next I would explain the Catholic position—along with the teaching of Martin Luther—that baptism actually effects salvation in those to whom it is administered, pointing out that such a view of the sacrament of baptism runs counter to the narrative pattern in the book of Acts.  Finally, I would explain the Protestant (non-Lutheran) understanding of the meaning of infant baptism by way of analogy to circumcision in the Old Testament. 

“First,” I would say, “although circumcision was a sign of the Old Covenant and baptism is a sign in the New Covenant, it does not follow—and is nowhere explicitly taught in scripture—that therefore, all the details about the one apply to the other (such as the proper subjects of the sign of the covenant).”  At this point I would point to the discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.  I would take the Robertson’s to Jeremiah 31:31-33

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.  “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,” for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

“Second,” I would say, “one of the major differences between the two covenants (Old and New) is that all the members of the New Covenant are those whose sins have been forgiven and whose hearts have been changed (‘I will put My law within them’).” 

I would close my polemical tirade by capitalizing once again on the meaning of baptism.  “Finally,” I would say, “as we have seen already from Paul’s epistles and from the Acts narratives, baptism does not signify death to sin and new life in general, but the death and new life of the individual being baptized.”  I would conclude, hopefully to their satisfaction, that infant baptism, while certainly done in good faith by those who administer it or have it administered to their infants, is nonetheless misguided; it is not in accord with the biblical notions of the meaning of baptism and misunderstands the condensed nature of the Acts narratives and the “household” language.

On the basis of such argumentation, I would encourage them to be immersed as believers while discouraging them from thinking about it as a “rebaptism,” since their first baptism—though done in good faith by their parents—was not a legitimate baptism.  I would try to make it sound like a grand idea: “You will have the opportunity to be baptized for the first time!”  If they would be unconvinced and refuse to be baptized, however, I would probably take the matter to the elders for discussion and council.             

 


[1] Although baptism may also symbolizes the forgiveness of sins based on Acts 22:16, I am inclined to interpret this (and Titus 3:5) as both actually associating baptism with regeneration rather than forgiveness.

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