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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.


:: The Sacrament of Baptism in Roman Catholic Theology ::

Baptism is efficacious—it removes the guilt of original sin and regenerates the soul, freeing one from the slavery of sin and conferring justifying grace, leaving an indelible mark on the baptized which can never be removed (not even by mortal sin) and marks the believer with the “seal.”[1]  It actually accomplishes that which it symbolizes—death to sin and the new birth of the Holy Spirit.  Baptism is therefore the Gateway to the Christian life—to justifying grace, to membership in the Catholic Church, to communion with Christ, his sufferings and baptism, to the common priesthood of all believers, etc.  Baptism is thus also necessary—for salvation, justification, sanctification, etc., and since children are born with original sin, they too must be baptized.  Christian Baptism is prefigured in the crossing of Jordan into the promise land, in Noah’s ark as a symbol of salvation, and above all in the Exodus as a symbol of liberation from bondage.  Water has always been a symbol of life and fruitfulness, yet the water of the sea is a symbol of death, and thus represents the death of Christ and consequently the death of the believer who dies with Christ through Baptism. 

Yet, although “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism … he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”[2]  Therefore, exceptions include 1) baptism of desire (those who die with the intention to be baptized, such as a catechumen who dies before he/she is baptized), 2) baptism of blood (those who die in martyrdom for their faith before they are able to be baptized), 3) those who seek the truth and do the will of God in accordance with his or her understanding of it (for such persons “would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity”),[3] and 4) probably unbaptized infants, since God’s mercy is so great, and since Jesus had a tender heart toward children.   

The Roman Catholic celebration of Baptism is extensive and detailed.  Although only a bishop, priest, or (in the Latin Church) a deacon ordinarily administers baptism, in case of necessity, anyone who sincerely wished to truly perform the celebration may do so.[4]  All not yet baptized are subject to baptism, but since baptism can never be repeated, only those not yet baptized can be candidates.[5]  For the celebration of baptism, many rituals must be performed—exorcisms, the consecration of the baptismal waters, confession of faith, triple immersion (or triple pouring) in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the post-baptismal anointing which symbolizes the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the white garment which symbolizes the putting on of Christ, the candle which symbolizes the enlightened neophyte and the transformation of this one from darkness to light (even the light of the world), and finally, the solemn blessing which concludes the celebration.          

Texts which on the surface seem to support Baptismal regeneration—which is directly tied to salvation—are used in support of the Roman Catholic understanding of Baptism as efficacious for purification and regeneration.  Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5).[6]  In addition to baptism being central to the Great Commission, Jesus explicitly says, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mk 16:16).  The apostles carried out their preaching in the same way.  The Chief Apostle Peter preached this way: “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” (Acts 2:38).  Thus, it is no surprise that Paul would also strongly connect Baptism with dying to sin and being liberated from its bondage (Rom 6:4-7, cf. Col 2:12).  The Catechism suffers no shortage of proof texts for Baptismal Regeneration (see also Titus 3:5; 1 Pet 3:20; Gal 3:27; 1 Cor 6:11; 12:13; Eph 5:26).  For infant baptism, the Catechism first recognizes that infants are born with a sin nature which leaves them in need of salvation.  Secondly, it harkens to Jesus words, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mk 10:14).  Thirdly, it appeals to the “explicit testimony to this practice from the second century on.”[7]  Lastly, the Catechism appeals to “household” baptism of the NT (Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:16).  A frequent theme in defense of the inclusivistic widening of baptismal grace is an appeal to the desire of “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:6).  This verse is reference more than once in the section on baptism.

            Compared to many other doctrines of Roman Catholicism which find not even a shadow of support from the NT, Rome’s support for her views on Baptism seems at first impressive.  Whereas much of the Catechism’s footnotes and quotes hearken more to Tradition, the majority of arguments in this section come straight from scripture.  Much of Protestant Evangelical Theology will differ immensely from the views summarized above.  There is no way to give a substantive critique of the mountain of biblical passages appealed to in the above mentioned summary, so I must only give a hint as to how certain Protestant Evangelicals would critique the Roman Catholic arguments employed in defense of their views.  Although on the surface the passages cited are very persuasive, in the end, the conclusions Rome draws from these verses violate her own canons about biblical interpretation—namely, to “be especially attentive ‘to the content and unity of the whole Scripture,'” and to “be attentive to the analogy of faith.”[8]  Passages in Scripture which teach that salvation comes at the moment of faith—not the moment of baptism—are overwhelming in number, and more didactic in nature.  Therefore, in spite of the plethora of proof texts, Rome falls short of her own standards of hermeneutics.  Rome’s arguments for Inclusivism, which are based on the general concepts of the mercy and compassion of God are in need of more exegetical input.  We should not assume God’s mercy extends beyond the explicit ways revealed to us in Sacred Scripture.  Finally, as the most frequently quoted verse in Rome’s whole defense for Baptismal Regeneration, John 3:5, the concept of being born of water and Spirit is drawn from OT imagery about the New Covenant.  Therefore, Jesus language of the necessity of being born of water and Spirit is tantamount to speaking of the necessity of being a part of the New Covenant (Ezek 36:25-26).  One should not, then, read water baptism into this apocalyptic symbolism.          

From an evangelical Baptist perspective, Jesus’ words about children are just that—words about children, not infants.  Jesus referred to children who were at least old enough to “come” to him (physically, not spiritually).  The passages about “household” baptisms are presumptuous in that they must assume that the households referred to include infants (which is not explicitly in the text), but also it seems clear from comparing parallel accounts of baptisms that when a household was baptized it was because the household also believed (Acts 16:34; 18:8).[9]  Beyond the fact that Protestants do not accept arguments from church history on equal grounds with Scripture, the evidence from church history can also be interpreted in a way which actually creates an argument against infant baptism.

Rome’s doctrine of baptism is not all bad.  Adult baptisms are likely to be handed with greater care than in Protestant churches by emphasizing the need for catechesis.[10]  Also, she emphasizes the importance of the responsibility of the church to help nourish those who join the church through baptism, as well as the responsibility of those who are baptized to respect church authority.[11]  She rightly sees a connection between faith and baptism.  She rightly sees baptism as central to the great commission, and as symbolizing our death to sin and resurrection to new life.  As is common with all sacraments and doctrines of Rome, she sees the mystery of the sacrament summed up in Christ: “In Christ’s death ‘is the whole mystery.'”[12]  However, while getting these less important details right, Rome has indeed presented quite a different way of salvation than that which so many evangelical protestants believe to be the biblical doctrine of salvation by her teaching of the efficacy of regeneration and forgiveness of sins through baptism. This leads many evangelicals to conclude that Rome’s doctrine of baptism, with her understanding of its efficacy, with her inclusive tendencies, with her practice of infant baptism, violently distorts the biblical gospel.  I would remind such Protestants that Jesus himself (his incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection) is the essential part of the kerygmatic gospel in the NT (1 Cor 15:3-4) not a specific view about baptism.  Plenty of Protestants also believe in the efficacy of water baptism for salvation.  In fact, Martin Luther himself believed this and taught it with a passion.  If we accuse Rome of distorting the very gospel of Jesus Christ on account of her beliefs about baptism, we will get more than we bargained for and end up condemning almost the whole pre-reformation church, including the early martyrs, the apostolic and patristic fathers, Saint Augustine, Martin Luther himself, and several Protestant denominations.  Perhaps Rome is wrong on her doctrine of baptism, but this does not mean Catholics deny the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Let’s not make too little of the gospel and too much of our different views of baptism.        

[1] Although the idea of “seal” seems to communicate that one is sealed for eternal salvation, if one does not “keep” the seal he or she receives then that person will lose his or her status in the state of grace, make shipwreck of their faith and go to hell—even though they would still have a permanent “mark” on their soul.  In other words, neither the seal, nor the indelible mark are any guarantee of salvation, just guarantee of a “mark” and a losable “seal.”  Catechism, par 1274.

[2] Catechism, par 1257.

[3] Catechism, par 1260.

[4] After all, it is better that a layman perform the sacrament unlawfully than that the one desiring baptism lose out on salvation.

[5] The church is only willing to baptize anyone who has never been baptized.

[6] This text, John 3:5, is appealed to more than any other verse in the section on Baptism—5 times total.  See footnotes 24, 25, 40, 59, and 64.

[7] Catechism, par 1252.

[8] Catechism, par 112 & 114.

[9] It should be noted that Rome seems hesitant to use these verses as prove her case, since she holds out the “possibility” that they may not refer to infant baptisms.  Catechism, par 1252.   

[10] Catechism, par 1216, 1233, 1248.

[11] Catechism, par 1255, 1269, 1271.

[12] Catechism, par 1225. 

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