TWO VIEWS ON BAPTISM
Christians agree that baptism is the great picture of all we have in Christ. The washing with water signifies God’s promise to spiritually wash his people clean—from the guilt of sin, by forgiving them through Christ’s death, and the grip of sin, by filling them with his Holy Spirit. Baptism is therefore a sort of visible word from God, guaranteeing these things and all that stems from them to those who turn from their sin and trust Jesus.
Depending on their background however, some Christians are unaware that there are two views on who exactly should be baptised. Most independent churches, with the Baptist and Pentecostal churches, practice ‘believers’ baptism’ - known as ’Credobaptism.’ They baptise only those who seem to own a conscious faith in Christ. And this has been an increasingly dominant view since the seventeenth century. Others from the independent churches, together with Methodists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and the United Reformed Church practice ‘infant baptism’ - known as ’Paedobaptism.’ They baptise the children of believers too. This is the more historic view, that was pretty much universally held from the third century (it's not clear what was believed before then). Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran churches also baptise children, but for somewhat different reasons.
At Grace Church different elders hold different views, and in seeking to do justice to the Bible’s call to protect the consciences of Christians who disagree on secondary matters, we hold a dual policy on baptism. This means we encourage those considering baptism for themselves or their children to properly weigh up the Bible’s teaching and then decide the way forward according to their understanding.
First, we need to understand the Bible idea of “covenant.” A covenant is a special agreement between God and his people. Like the covenant of marriage itself, it outlines the nature of their relationship. God promises certain things, but with provisos people must fulfil to continue benefiting from those promises.
So, in Noah’s day God promised all creatures he would never flood the world again, but required them not to kill a man if they were to continue living in it. He promised Abraham and his descendents a great future, but required them to circumcise their children. He promised Israel blessing in the land, but required them to love and so obey him. He promised King David a descendent always on the throne, but required each descendent not to forfeit their throne by doing wrong.
Those who baptise children hold that all believers who seem to display true repentance and faith in Christ should be baptised - and their children too if they have not yet reached an age of responsibility.
They point to the fact that God’s covenants have always included children under his promise to be God not just to the parent but to their children too. These children were only excluded from God’s covenants if they displayed a lack of obedient faith when deemed responsible. Paedobaptists then say that because the New Covenant that Christ established was first and foremost a covenant with Israel, it assumes this same principle (Jer 31:31, 36-37, Gen 17:7). Indeed, they contend that the prophets explicitly taught that the New Covenant would include the children of believers (Isaiah 59:21, 61:9, 65:23).
They also point out that the New Testament (NT) itself treats children as members of the people of God until such time as they prove otherwise. Important here is that the NT addresses children as Christians, and says they are “holy” and even “clean” because of their parents’ faith. These are covenant words, suggesting such children are set-apart and acceptable to God (1 Cor 7:14, Eph 6:4). Indeed, by blessing infants and saying that the kingdom of heaven belongs to “such as these,” Jesus also seemed to imply they were in a state of acceptance before God (Mk 10v14-16). Paedobaptists add that the NT applies the language of God’s covenant people to those within the community of faith even if it is uncertain whether they have truly believed (Rom 11:17-21, Heb 10:29). And they make the point that if this was not the case Jewish children would be worse off if their parents became Christians. As Jews they were considered part of God’s covenant people, but as Christian children they would no longer be.
So, the argument to baptise children is basically this: Baptism is the sign of the new covenant. The children of believers are included as members of God’s covenant people until such time as they forfeit that membership by responsible unbelief. Younger children of believers should therefore be baptised.
Of course, those who baptise only adults argue that as baptism pictures the response of faith and the new life of the Spirit, children even of believers should not be baptised because they can’t yet express faith and it can’t be determined whether they have received the Spirit. Indeed, to baptise them is to give them a false assurance of being “in” when they might well be out.
Those who baptise infants respond that to withhold baptism implies that children are actually “out” when they might be in, and that right teaching and church discipline should protect baptised children from any false assurance. They point out the NT nowhere states children shouldn’t be baptised. Moreover, the New Covenant is the same covenant that God made with Abraham—although now fulfilled (Lk 1:67-70). Its Old Testament (OT) sign of circumcision also pictured the response of faith and new life of the Spirit (Deut 30:6, Rom 2:29, 4v11). Yet God still required that it be given to infant boys. The reason, they say, is that younger children are not yet responsible for their actions (Deut 1:34-35). So, God loves and accepts them on the basis of their parents’ faith until such time as they are old enough to be responsible for themselves. At only eight days old the circumcised baby boy was therefore said to have actually “kept” the covenant himself because his parents circumcised him, and could only then be excluded from the covenant people if he grew up to turn from the Lord (Gen 17:10-14, Num 15:30-31).
Paedobaptists agree that things are somewhat different through Christ. God’s covenant people can no longer be equated with a nation, but are a “remnant chosen by grace” (Rom 11v5). However, they maintain that God continues to work through households in bringing his grace to each generation because this is his purpose for marriage (Mal 2:15). The adult convert therefore brings not just himself but his children to Christ in his faith, and treats them as believers until such time as they may show they are not. This, they say, is how Peter's Jewish listeners would have understood his words in Acts 2:38-39.
Those who baptise just those who consciously believe note that in every NT reference to baptism the requirement of faith precedes baptism. Therefore, only those who seem to display true repentance and faith in Christ should be baptised.
They point out that under the new covenant God promised to write his law on people’s hearts and forgive them their sins. So only those who have believed, been forgiven and given the Spirit are members of this covenant (Jer 31:33-34, Gal 3:7-9). They argue, therefore, that the generational aspects of the Abrahamic covenant no longer stand. The promises of the OT do apply to a people group, but only to those who actually believe in Jesus (Gal 3:29). Indeed, if baptism operated like circumcision and so was granted to children, credobaptists ask why the apostles didn’t respond to the Jewish Christians who said children had to be circumcised by saying that this was no longer needed as they had been baptised.
They add that there are no explicit instances of infant baptism in the Bible. In the three household baptisms mentioned (Acts 16:15, Acts 16:30–33; 1 Corinthians 1:16) no mention is made of infants, and in the case of the Philippian jailer, the gospel was spoken to the whole household (Acts 16:32), implying that all who were baptised could understand the word.
They also point out that Paul explicitly defined baptism as an act done through faith (Col 2:12) because in baptism believers are raised up with Christ through their own faith. Baptism is therefore an outward expression of a specific individual’s response. Likewise, Peter defined baptism as "an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Pet 3:21) and so an outward act of an inner confession and prayer to God for cleansing. This inner confession and prayer is made by the one being baptized rather than their parents.
The basic argument to baptise only believers is therefore this: Baptism is the sign of the new covenant. People are considered members of God’s covenant people when they display an obedient faith. It is once people have displayed this obedient faith that they should therefore be baptised.
Those who baptise infants counter by saying that the texts stating the new covenant only includes those filled with the Spirit refers to its final expression in the coming kingdom, but still allows for members now who may not yet have experienced that (Heb 8v8-12 with 10v26-29). They add that the NT predominantly links baptism with conscious repentance and faith because it is referring to adults in the context of mission, and that in baptism the response of the Christian adult is counted as their child's, so repentance and faith are still present. They also argue that the language of “household” presumes the continuance of the Old Testament concept of the family as a spiritual entity in which parents act for their children (Jos 24v15), and that first century households inevitably included children, so the household baptisms would have done too (Acts 16v14-15, 31-34; 18v8; 1 Cor 1v16).
By contrast, Credobaptists are of the view that the text stating the new covenant includes those filled with the Spirit should govern who is to be treated as a member of God's covenant now. They therefore teach that whereas the nation of Israel contained non-believers and believers, as the continuation of the remnant, the true church is formed of believers only (Romans 9:6–8 and 4:22–28).
Credobaptists agree that God continues to work through families. However, they maintain that such children should not be counted as members of the new covenant people of God until they actually display an obedient faith. They see Peter’s statement that God’s promise was for his hearers and their children as a call for everyone to believe and then be baptised. (Acts 2:38-39).
The method of baptism
Christians differ on this too. Some hold that baptism should involve people being fully immersed under water; others that the water should be poured or sprinkled over them.
The word baptism certainly implies an abundance of water, stressing the abundance of the Holy Spirit at work in the Christian. But there is no command on how the idea of abundance should be reflected.
Baptism does signify being buried with Christ and coming to new life (Colossians 2v12), and this fits the image of being submerged under water before coming up out of it. However, we should remember the Holy Spirit is more specifically described as having been "poured" out (Acts 2v17-18). Moreover, the cleansing from sin baptism pictures is referred to as being "sprinkled" with water too (Ezekiel 36v25).
It seems the Bible therefore allows a degree of freedom in exactly how people are baptised. We should certainly be wary of creating a command where God has not given one.
The way ahead
You may have realised these are not simple arguments to asses. This is why well-meaning Christians who take the Bible equally seriously still disagree. Obviously, you may feel you need to think further. If you have questions do talk to one of the elders. You may also find it helpful to read Baptism: Three views, edited by David F Wright and published by IVP.
If having thought this through, you are over twelve years old and think you should be baptised, do speak to one of our elders. If you have been baptised as an infant, but have recently come to faith and want to confirm the vows made for you as a child, we can talk about that too.
If, however, you are considering the way forward for your child, then there are two options.
1) If you do not wish for them to be baptised as a child, we would be delighted to hold a dedication service for them. Here you dedicate yourself (or selves) to raising them in the faith. When your child then reaches secondary school age, they can then be baptised if they display an obedient faith in Christ for themselves.
2) If you would like your child to be baptised now and display an obedient faith yourself, then we would be very happy to baptise them. If, as we pray, they come to a clear commitment to Christ as they grow up, they can then confirm the baptismal vows you make for them when reaching secondary school age. We call this “confirmation.”
Whatever you choose, do get in touch so we can talk further.