This article started as a letter to a friend. I have made a few minor changes and added some headings to the original. It is written for an ordinary, interested Christian who has not thought much about baptism and wants to know more about what the Bible says on the subject.
You ask me two questions: should you be baptised as a believer? And: what does the Bible say about baptism?
Baptism is a very difficult subject. On the human level it generates a great deal of emotion, and this makes it difficult for people to consider the issues involved. You must already be aware that very deep issues are at stake: the nature of salvation, the Church, sin and redemption, the sacraments, the way in which God operates in human experience, the essence of faith. Baptism relates directly to all these and more.
You will also have gathered that baptism is not a simple subject. It is not (for example) like the Second Coming, where there are three possibilities and - with minor variations - everybody fits into one of those three camps. Having said that, I am not sure what it is like - a complex novel? a great symphony? real life? - but I think you get the idea.
You will notice I am not addressing the question you asked: should you be baptised? If you come to the 'theological' conviction that you need to be baptised, then your decision is made. If God says to you often enough and loudly enough that He wants you to be baptised, then you don't have much option. I can't stand in God's place and tell you what to do. What I can do is to try to help you clarify the theological issues at stake and to help you understand where you stand.
Where do we start? The starting place you choose can make a big difference to how you see the various aspects. A major part of our difficulty lies in the fact that the New Testament does not present us with a theology of baptism - it presents us with the act. The disciples are not told what the significance of baptism is; they are told to baptise (Matthew 28:19).
The disciples knew what Jesus was talking about. Baptism was a well established religious ritual even before John the Baptist. The word "baptise" was in everyday use: it means to "dip", "immerse", "soak", "saturate", "drench" or "plunge". It was used in the everyday act of washing your hands - hence the confusion over how to translate Hebrews 6:2. It referred, quite naturally, both to sacred ritual and everyday event.
What else is clear about baptism? It is connected with regeneration - the act and the process of becoming a Christian. The Church (in the person of the disciples) is commanded to baptise (Matthew 28 again), and people wanting to be saved are commanded to be baptised (Acts 2:38). There are many accounts of people being saved and baptised (Acts 16:33, for example) and the assumption throughout the New Testament is that believers have been baptised (as in Romans 6:4).
Even Galatians 3:27, which can be read to indicate doubt about this, is clearly in its context assuming that they had all been baptised: "You are all sons of God... for all of you who were baptised... have clothed yourselves with Christ".
The one place I can think of in the New Testament where baptism is questioned is Acts 19:1-6, where baptism is so strongly linked with the Holy Spirit that the Ephesians' ignorance of the Holy Spirit leads Paul to question the baptism they had received (note again the assumption that they had been baptised) and leads to their being baptised again.
The general terms used for the two main divisions of baptismal theology are "Paedobaptist" and "Anabaptist". "Paedobaptist" is an accurate description ("infant baptiser") and refers to one who baptises infants. The other, "Anabaptist", is historically a term of abuse which literally means "re-baptiser", something which Anabaptists would, in general, reject. It usually refers to someone who baptises only believers. Leaving to one side, for the moment, the distinction here between "infant" and "believer", I think the distinction is clear even if people want to argue about the precise words used.
Simply with the labels given to the people in these two camps, we can see a number of areas of confusion arising.
A point which is often missed is that a Paedobaptist will be happy in principle to baptise both infants and believers, although in practice many have never baptised a believer and hence associate baptism solely with infants. This tension between theology and practice occurs many times when you are looking at baptism.
So you can be a Paedobaptist and baptise believers, and you can be an Anabaptist without baptising anyone more than once (whatever that means). The terms need to be used carefully - with understanding - and not simply as convenient boxes to place people in.
The Anabaptist usually rejects re-baptism. I certainly do. But he practices what is seen by Paedobaptists to be re-baptism because sometimes the people who are baptised as believers have already, according to the Paedobaptists, been baptised as infants. According to the Anabaptists, they have not been baptised and therefore need to be baptised for the first time.
This leads to the confusion of the charge often made by the Paedobaptist that the Anabaptist "unchurches" people. Folk use the term "unchurch" in a number of different ways. Sometimes it refers to the Anabaptist refusing to accept infants into the Church by baptism; sometimes to the implication that the Anabaptist refuses to acknowledge the Paedobaptist as a fellow member of the Church (or even as a fellow Christian?) because he or she has not been validly baptised. Either way, the charge is usually untrue: children (whether baptised or not) are accepted as part of the church family, and the idea that you can only be in the Church if you have been validly baptised is more commonly a part of Paedobaptist theology than Anabaptist - see the section on "Covenant Theology" below.
Another confusion links Anabaptism with "Adult Baptism" and "Baptism by Total Immersion". In practice, these three tend to go together, but there is no theological requirement for this.
The Greek Orthodox Church baptises infants by total immersion, and most Anabaptists are willing to baptise by sprinkling when necessary. Most prefer the method of total immersion because it is (a) the original method, and (b) more clearly symbolic of the meaning of the event.
As to age, the Anabaptist has no objection to baptising a child as long as the child is a believer. This, of course, raises the question of how you determine whether a child is a believer. But then, how do you determine whether anyone is a believer? It is not simple to draw up a set of rules at any age. The point is that the Anabaptist does not rule out the possibility of baptising children - only the possibility of baptising anyone who is not a believer.
For most purposes, you can assume that infant baptism and christening are one and the same thing. There is a major technical difference: christening is actually an anointing with oil (from the Greek, "christos"), and quite different from baptism. A few Paedobaptists are very strict on this particular bit of terminology. In fact, almost everyone who claims to have been christened has actually been baptised as an infant - I personally know no-one who has been christened and not baptised. And many who claim to have been christened have not been christened at all, only baptised. I hope that is clear now!
However, I do know of one church which really does christen babies. They don't actually use the term, but they do explain that it is a time of 'blessing and thanksgiving' and not a baptism. The oil is a symbol of God's blessing, so this makes a great deal of sense. Many other churches offer similar ceremonies, generally without oil or water, as a way of welcoming the child and praying God's blessing on the family.
You might by now be asking yourself where the Baptist fits in to this Anabaptist-Paedobaptist conflict. The simple answer is: nowhere, really. A Baptist can fit into either of the two camps. The distinction between the two lies in their theology - the question of the meaning of baptism and what it achieves. A Baptist, on the other hand (ignoring the denominational sense of the word) is simply someone who adopts the practice of believers' baptism.
A person can be a Baptist (that is, engage in believers' baptism but not Infant Baptism) because of a belief that it is the only form of Baptism commanded and blessed by God. But it is equally possible to be a Baptist because of a belief that it is the wisest, most sensible, and most prudent option when you consider the state of our society.
Of course, these are not the only two possibilities. But they illustrate the two basic options quite nicely. Some people are Baptists because they are Anabaptists. And some people are Baptists because they are Paedobaptists who believe that infant baptism is valid but not wise.
For example, many people in the Anglican Church are arguing for a return to the practice of believers' baptism as the norm because we now live in a post-Christian society where you cannot assume that all babies brought to the Church will be brought up with Christian beliefs and values. They do not deny that infant baptism is valid; they simply maintain that believers' baptism is more appropriate in the current situation.
You can distinguish between the two types of Baptist quite simply: just present them with a new convert who was baptised as an infant. The Paedobaptist will say, "You have been baptised already. That is sufficient." The Anabaptist will say, "You have not been baptised yet, so you need to be." In this letter, I have focused my thoughts on the Anabaptist rather than the Baptist because the issues are clearer this way.
The doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration divides both the Paedobaptist and Anabaptist camps. Some people in both parties believe that baptism either makes the baptised person a Christian, or is a necessary part of becoming a Christian. Others, in both parties, reject such an idea. This can be as bitterly argued as the more widely appreciated Paedobaptist-Anabaptist division.
In practice, this division is felt more deeply in the Paedobaptist camp because it has more immediate and more practical implications. Nobody I know argues for baptismal regeneration in the case of an adult to whom baptism is administered without consent, so the (rare) argument in Anabaptist circles centres on the question of the state and status of a believer who has not been baptised, which is somewhat academic for them.
On the other hand, a Paedobaptist who believes in baptismal regeneration has a moral obligation to baptise as many babies as possible, to bring as many people as possible into the Kingdom. This practice is strongly condemned as "indiscriminate baptism" by the Paedobaptist who believes that baptism of infants is only for the children of church members or practising believers.
Also, we have to recognise there is in our society still a surprisingly strong folk myth that you can make the child's eternal destiny certain by baptising it, just in case it should die in infancy.
We must give due consideration to the strand of thought in the New Testament which would support baptismal regeneration: 1 Peter 3: 21, for example. The Bible often confuses (or "identifies") the symbol with the thing symbolised. At the Last Supper, Jesus says "This is My Body."
It is clear that faith is required for salvation - I won't bother with references! But the key question is: whose faith? The Anabaptists say that personal faith is required - the individual concerned must exercise faith. Some Paedobaptists agree, but others maintain that the faith of parents is also sufficient. Still others, the faith of the Minister, the faith of the worshipping congregation, or the faith of the Church Universal (as in "look not on our sins but on the faith of Your Church").
There are examples in the Bible of people exercising faith for someone else - the story of the paralytic in Luke 5:17-26 is a good example. "When Jesus saw their [the friends'] faith, He said... 'Your sins are forgiven'" and He goes on to heal the man. I know of nobody who maintains that the man was thereby granted eternal salvation.
You can be "saved" as in "healed" (both words translate the same Greek "sodzo") by the faith of another, but I cannot think of a single instance where a person is saved (as in their eternal destiny being altered) purely because someone else exercised faith on their behalf.
In other areas, of course, faith operates on behalf of others - that is what much prayer is about: your prayers can be a blessing to me. We even talk about "praying people into the Kingdom" - but does this ever mean "into the Kingdom against their will"? I think not. And if they are willing, their personal faith is operative.
One final comment on this subject: I have argued elsewhere that the eternal destiny of babies who die has nothing to do with baptism. If you are interested in this subject, I can look it out for you.
One of the basic questions underlying much of the debate is this: is baptism symbolic or effective? Does it only represent something, or does it really achieve something? And if it does achieve something, what, and under what circumstances?
Baptism is clearly symbolic: everyone agrees about that. Is it also effective? It seems to me that in some sense it must be - or there would be no point in doing it.
It is easy to see the Biblical basis for the baptism of believers: it is found throughout the New Testament. If you want texts, Matthew 28 and Acts 2 are as useful as any.
Jesus commands the eleven (and, it is generally agreed, through them the whole Church) to "make disciples of all nations, baptising them... teaching them..." It is clear that baptism and teaching are both presented by Jesus as essential to the overall goal of making disciples. Perhaps we should look again at the traditional practice of catechising new believers?
Some people object to this simple reading of the passage. They argue that in the Greek the "them" we are to baptise refers to the "all nations," not to the believers. Quite true. The Marshall Interlinear reads "... disciple ye all the nations, baptising them..."
But how do you baptise a nation? How were the Children of Israel baptised into Moses? Only by each and every one of them experiencing a personal baptism by passing through the waters of the Red Sea. Presumably you disciple a nation in the same way: by turning every individual within the nation into a disciple.
The natural way to read and interpret this passage is "... disciple ye [as many people as possible in] all the nations, baptising them..." in which case the "them" we are to baptise are the "as many people as possible in all the nations" who are being discipled. So it comes back to the same thing in practice: the people we are commanded to baptise and teach are those who are being discipled.
Peter, on the day of Pentecost, fresh from being baptised in the Holy Spirit (how many times did that happen? Sorry - mustn't get distracted...) stands and preaches the first sermon recorded in Acts. Verses 37 to 39 read as follows:
Now when they [the crowd] heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" And Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all who are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him."
Peter tells the people who have been "cut to the heart" that they must repent and be baptised "every one of you." They evidently believe what he has told them - otherwise "what shall we do?" is either meaningless or hollow mockery. So baptism is commanded to those individuals ("every one of you") who also believe and repent.
Some people interpret "the promise is to you and your children" as meaning that if you believe, repent and are baptised then your children can also be baptised and you will all receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is stretching the passage too far in one sense, and not far enough in another.
The promise is not only to "you and your children" but also to "all who are far off." I have yet to meet a Paedobaptist who on the strength of this passage claims the right to baptise "all who are far off." Clearly the scope of the promise is to "every one whom the Lord our God calls to Him."
The promise of the Holy Spirit - a very real and immediate promise on the day of Pentecost - is made not only to those privileged to be present and hear Peter that day, but to all who believe, repent and are baptised. The promise extends equally to close family and strangers, to those near by and those far off. It extends to all mankind: receive the gift God has promised!
So the promise is for your children: the promise that, if you believe, repent and are baptised, you will receive forgiveness of your sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The same promise is made to everyone. And the same command is given to everyone who believes: repent and be baptised.
Nowhere in the New Testament is it commanded, encouraged, or even suggested that anyone should be baptised who has not already believed and repented, just as it is never suggested that anyone who has not believed and repented can be forgiven their sins and receive the Holy Spirit. They are all part of the single salvation-package we are offered if we are prepared to throw away our lives and follow Jesus.
In contrast to the evidence for believers' baptism in the New Testament, there is not a single explicit reference to any infant being baptised. I think everyone accepts that believers' baptism was practised and was (probably) the norm in New Testament times. The question is about whether the New Testament practice of and teaching about baptism can be validly extended from believers to include babies.
Many Paedobaptists consider the evidence in the New Testament supporting infant baptism to be too weak, and they seek to justify their position from the way the Holy Spirit has led the church since its writing - but this, of course, lies outside the scope of our consideration of the Biblical basis of baptism. Other Paedobaptists seek to use the Bible to support their position in a number of different ways. In no particular order:
Paedobaptists often argue that families are baptised in the New Testament, the families must have contained children, therefore children must have been baptised.
There are a number of problems with this argument.
In the New Testament, you were baptised on profession of faith. A baby cannot make a profession of faith, so you don't think of babies when you talk about baptism - any more than a Paedobaptist today would think of his cat or garden gnome and tell you they had not been baptised. You don't baptise cats or gnomes - it's as simple as that. In the New Testament, you didn't baptise babies. Or, if you did, God saw fit to omit this (seemingly vital) piece of information from His Book.
As an aside, I have difficulties with any position which maintains something is important which is missing from or very obscure in the Bible. I feel that the important things (such as "God loves you") are made very clear.
Jesus accepted the children who were brought to Him (Luke 18: 15-17), and rebuked His disciples for hindering them.
I don't know if this needs any comment!
By the way, I agree that infant baptism can be a "means of grace": I have met people who have been blessed by the event. I believe God can use it - as He can use anything - to reach out and touch people. But accepting it as a means of grace (in other words, agreeing that it can have a good spiritual effect, just like the Dedication Service practised by many Anabaptists) is not the same as accepting it as baptism in the New Testament sense of the word.
This approach treats baptism as the New Testament form of (or equivalent to) circumcision. This is probably the deepest and most difficult of all the arguments. It is difficult to pin down because it can draw on almost the entire Old Testament, but I will try to give a fair account.
In essence, the argument points to parallels between the Old and New Testaments. One typical presentation goes like this.
|Aspect||Old Testament||->||New Testament|
|Sign of the Covenant
(means of entry):
|Position of children:||Included||->||Included|
In fact, I don't remember hearing anyone ever argue this position. I have heard many people affirm it - often presenting the position with great power and emotion. I don't think many people really understand it.
|Aspect||Old Testament||->||New Testament|
|Place of worship:||Temple||->||Church building|
|Role of animals:||Sacrifice||->||Sacrifice|
For a wider discussion of this area of the debate, please see the related article, "An Eternal Covenant".
It has been argued that believers' baptism is something I do, and can therefore be an attempt to gain salvation by works. Infant baptism, on the other hand, is given without the infant doing anything and therefore demonstrates the primacy of grace over works, and also God's active love reaching out to us even before we are capable of any response.
In baptism we acknowledge that we are responding to God's gracious invitation. Baptism is an affirmation that our one hope lies in the death and resurrection of Christ - something He has accomplished once and for all on our behalf. We are buried with Christ in baptism (Colossians 2:12) and through baptism (Romans 6:4). His death is applied to me in a special way when I am baptised.
I do not pretend to understand this fully. The best analogy I have is given by Paul in Ephesians 5: marriage. Depending on how you look at it, marriage changes nothing - or everything. It is easy to focus on the one or the other and fail to keep them in balance. Similarly, with baptism. There are Biblical grounds for saying it changes nothing - you are already saved, filled with the Spirit, and so on - and grounds for saying it changes everything. Fortunately, we are not called to understand perfectly: we are called to a life of sacrificial love and obedience.
This is not really a Biblical argument, but it does attempt to take the Biblical text seriously, so needs to be considered. Some people maintain that personal faith and baptism are both important, but the order doesn't matter. The infant baptism "becomes effective" when the person exercises a personal saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Finally... Many Paedobaptists will agree that there is "some support" in scripture for the Anabaptist position, and that the situation is "not entirely clear." But they then go on to argue that the Anabaptist is wrong because baptism is a "once-and-for-all" event. It can only be done once, so attempting to do it twice is an error, even if you disagree with the timing or theology of the first occasion. We have already looked at the answers to this objection.
In response to the final point, the objection is sometimes refined like this. The problem is not with re-baptism as such. You can be baptised as many times as you like, but you can only be baptised once into Christ (or, as it is sometimes phrased, into the Church).
This brings us back to the question: is baptism effective? If it is effective, it can only be done once - so why get worked up about it? If the Paedobaptist is right, and baptism is effective, then the Anabaptist cannot baptise people a second time. But on the other hand, if baptism is not effective, what really is the problem with repeating it?
There is a theoretical problem of "cheapening the currency" - if people can get baptised many times, then the meaning and significance of the event is watered down or destroyed. I do not know of any mainstream Christian group where this is a real problem. And, in any case, if the fact that some people somewhere are (in your eyes) abusing baptism, and this lessens the value of the practice for you, then you might as well give up now: the currency - for you - has already been cheapened beyond repair.
There is, of course, much, much more that I could write. You may well feel that I have written enough already!
Some Anabaptists claim that baptism is important as an act of public witness. I can't find much in the New Testament to support that idea. No, the emphasis seems to be far more on this: Jesus died for you. You have to respond to Him. You have to renounce your old life - die to it - and start a new life in the power of His Spirit. Your sins are then forgiven, you are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and given the right as a newborn child of God to enter (and live in) His presence.
Baptism is the act which corresponds to the washing away of your sins and the death/rebirth event. It is a prophetic act: it proclaims God's salvation in action. It is, in some sense, an effective act, accomplishing what it represents. It is both a response to and a celebration of God's grace.
All this, and more, is clear in the writings of the New Testament. If all this is true when a baby is baptised, fine. If it is not, then the baby has not been baptised in the normal New Testament sense of the word. It has, presumably, been baptised as the disciples of John in Acts 19 had been baptised; but as with those disciples the spiritual reality is missing.
Simply as a physical event, Baptism counts for very little. We have better baths every week. As a social ritual, it may be useful for providing occasions when families get together. But however useful that may be, it has nothing to do with the Biblical meaning of (or teaching about) baptism. The important question is about spiritual reality - God's presence in your life - and how this makes the Biblical principles like 'obedience' and 'faith' come alive in your experience.