Last week we began looking at the nature of the church, and one of the things I noted (as we looked at Matthew 16:13-20) is that Jesus gave the church the authority to publicly affirm those who do belong to Christ and represent him and those who do not belong to Christ and represent him. And the way they publicly affirm one does represent Christ is through the ordinance of baptism, while the way they affirm one does not represent Christ is by disciplining an individual, removing him or her from the membership of the church and refusing to allow that person to come to the table. Therefore, we’re going to take up these two issues over these next two weeks: baptism and communion/discipline. This morning, then, we begin with baptism. And we should begin with a definition.
What Is Baptism?
Simply put, baptism is our visible response to the gospel. It is the means given by Christ to display that we have heard and received the gospel. It involves the immersion of someone into water as a visible display that they have died and been raised with Christ. Whereas the typical approach in our day is to walk an aisle to show that one has repented and believed, the biblical response appears to be baptism. In the Great Commission, Jesus declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). That is, the way we make disciples is first by declaring the gospel to them and having them respond in faith, which is visibly displayed through their baptism and entrance into the local church, and then teaching them to obey what Christ has commanded.
Therefore, baptism is that ordinance by which we publicly profess our faith in Christ being immersed in water, showing that one has died and been buried with Christ and (ideally) coming very quickly after one believes in Christ. It is also, then the marker by which one enters the church. Just as one there is no concept in Scripture of someone being a believer and not being baptized, there is no concept of one being baptized and yet not being a part of the church. To submit to baptism is to submit oneself to the authority of discipline of Christ’s church.
Should Only Believers Be Baptized?
After defining baptism as one’s public profession of faith it might sound odd to ask if only believers should be baptized. After all, does anyone who is not a believer make a public profession of faith? Of course not. However, this question of who should be baptized is one that has been much debated in the history of the church. In fact, the majority of those professing to be Christians in our day believe that baptism should not be restricted to believers but that infants should be baptized. Why do individuals believe that infants should be baptized?
Because Baptism Actually Saves Someone
The reason why a majority of professing Christians who practice infant baptism do so is because they believe it is saving. Though we may be quick to think few in churches believe this, this is by far the answer given by a majority of those practicing infant baptism. From a very early point in the history of the church individuals starting baptizing infants because they believed that it removed original sin. That is to say they believed that the guilt associated with Adam’s sin could be removed in infants if they were baptized. This probably became a typical practice because of a high infant mortality rate in the centuries of the early church. You can imagine a growing anxiety with the death of a number of infants and a spreading belief that baptism can wash away original sin, therefore assuring the salvation of one’s infant, that infant baptism would be an early and growing practice, and indeed it was.
And we can applaud those in this group in seeing that baptism is closely connected with one’s conversion. However, we must clearly deem this belief as unbiblical. Yes, baptism is closely connected with salvation, but it is closely connected because it is the visible display that one has placed his faith in Christ. There is simply no text that tells us baptism itself, that is the washing of one with water, is salvific. In fact the only text that looks like it says such a think quickly corrects anyone who thinks baptism is itself saving. Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:21, “Baptism, which corresponds to this [the waters through which Noah and his family were saved] now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Peter wants his readers to know that baptism is saving only in the sense that it is an expression that you have appealed to God for a good conscience by placing one’s faith in Christ. Therefore, again, we must reject this understanding that baptism is saving on biblical grounds and thus reject the baptism of infants on that ground as a biblical practice as well.
Because Baptism Replaces the Role Circumcision Had in the Old Covenant
This is the covenantal argument for infant baptism, an argument that came along shortly after the Reformation had begun (in other words, this argument is only about 500 years old). The argument is basically that just as the Old Covenant included believing adults and their children, so the New Covenant includes believing adults and their children. Now, this argument does not necessarily hinge on some text telling us to baptize infants (for there is no such text), but rather the flow of the whole Bible. Therefore, let me take a bit to lay out the flow of thought.
First, in Genesis 17:1-14, God makes a covenant with Abraham and with those who would come from Abraham: his offspring. And the sign that showed that someone was included in this covenant with God was circumcision. Thus we read:
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly." Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God." And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Therefore, God made a covenant to be God to Abraham and his offspring (i.e., those who would bear the mark of circumcision). So, who were those in covenant with God? It wasn’t simply the one who believed (Abraham), but his children as well. They too bore the sign of inclusion in the covenant.
Now this did not mean that every one of Abraham’s descendants was counted righteous before God. That is, though they bore the sign of circumcision, it didn’t mean that their hearts had been circumcised. We can simply say, not everyone of Abraham’s descendants were saved. And God makes this clear. In Jeremiah 9:25-26, Jeremiah writes, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh – Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” God declares here that though Israel may be circumcised in the flesh, they are not circumcised in their hearts. Though they are in the covenant, they do not belong to him.
This same idea is confirmed in the New Testament as Paul writes in Romans 2:29, “But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not be the letter; and his praise is not from men but from God” and again in Romans 9:6-8, “But it is not as thought he Word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are descendants of Abraham, but, ‘through Isaac your descendants will be named.’ So it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.”
Thus it is clear that not all off those who were Abraham’s physical descendants, (those physically circumcised) were children of God (those spiritually circumcised – circumcised in their hearts). However, even those who were not children of God were blessed and set apart, bearing the sign of circumcision because they were Abraham’s descendants and therefore part of the covenant community. Again, this did not guarantee that they would become children of God (be circumcised in their hearts, spiritually), but it did mean that they were part of the covenant community.
Therefore, the next question would be, “Has God’s approach to forming his covenant community changed?” Because if it hasn’t then we should assume that those included in the New Covenant community and who bear the mark of being a part of the New Covenant would not only include believers but their children as well. But what then is the mark of the New Covenant? It is no longer circumcision, but it is baptism.
So the argument for covenantal infant baptism would continue by pointing out that baptism in the New Covenant parallels circumcision in the Old Covenant, even as Paul writes in Colossians 2:11-12, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” There is a clear parallel between baptism and circumcision here.
Therefore, the argument would end as follows: Because there is a parallel with circumcision and baptism, and circumcision was applied to infants who were physical descendants of the people of God, even though there was no guarantee they would truly become the children of God, so should the physical descendants of those who are the people of God (the church) be baptized as infants, showing that they are part of the covenant community, though it is no guarantee that they will truly become children of God. So, I think we understand the argument, and see that though there might not be individual texts that command the baptism of infants, it is an inference we can draw from the broad layout of the whole Bible.
But I should add there are some texts that paedo-baptists (those believing we should baptize infants) think are signs that infants were baptized in the New Testament. Paedo-baptists point out that the Philippians jailer and his family were all baptized on the same night (Acts 16:32-33), that the household of Stephanas were all baptized by Paul (1 Corinthians 1:16), and that Lyida’s entire household was baptized together (Acts 16:14-15).
So, how should we answer the case for covenantal infant baptism?
Answering Infant Baptism: A Case for the Baptism of Believers Alone
My response to the baptism of infants is that I believe it to be an unbiblical practice. Let me list the reasons why:
1) The NT speaks of baptism assuming that the baptized one has been justified.
Look how many times baptism simply assumes salvation. In Galatians 3:27 Paul writes, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Could he make such a statement if he assumed that baptism were being intentionally administered to those who did not know Christ? Again, in Colossians 2:12 Paul can write, “You were buried with him in baptism in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Here, Paul speaks of one’s baptism as being synonymous with having been raised with Christ through faith. Again, could he write that if baptism were regularly administered to those whose hearts had not been circumcised? Finally, as Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:21, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” he makes clear that he expects one who is baptized to have appealed to God for a good conscience. Therefore, again, baptism in the Scripture assumes belief.
2) The Scripture shows us that the structure and nature of the New Covenant is different than the Old Covenant.
The covenantal paedo-baptist position assumes that there is a new covenant sign (baptism replaces circumcision) but the same structure. That is, unbelieving children born to covenant members are brought into the covenant and bear the covenant sign (as happened with Israel in the Old Covenant). But God actually told us when speaking of the New Covenant that the structure would change so that members of the New Covenant would all be believers.
We read in Jeremiah 31:31-34, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
According to this text (which is repeated in Hebrews 8), those who are members of the new covenant are those who have God’s law written on the heart, know the Lord, and have their sins forgiven. That is, they are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. One reason the NC is better than the OC is because all those in the NC are regenerate. The church is not made up like Israel. The genealogical principle has disappeared.
They note that Abraham believed, and then he circumcised his offspring. Thus, they say, since baptism replaces circumcision, we can say that believers (like Abraham) and their physical offspring should be baptized. But who is Abraham’s offspring? As you work through the Bible, this isn’t as simplistic as our paedo-baptist brothers are imagining it. Abraham had a natural, physical offspring in both Ishmael and Isaac (and both would have borne the mark of circumcision), but there was also a special offspring, wasn’t there? It’s Isaac, not Ishmael, Jacob, not Esau, etc. Though all would be Abraham’s physical offspring, his true offspring (or true seed) was a select number within that physical offspring. And ultimately the Bible tells us in Galatians 3:16, the true seed of Abraham is Jesus before telling us in Galatians 3:29 that all in Christ are Abraham’s offspring. So, when you get to the NC, the question is who is connected by faith to Jesus. Those are Abraham’s offspring. So, the evangelical paedo-baptist simplistically looks at the Abrahamic covenant.
4) The NC doesn’t teach that baptism replaces circumcision.
Another problem in the argument for the covenantal baptism of infants is that the parallel between baptism and circumcision is missed on the part of paedo-baptists because of careless exegesis of the text. We’ve mentioned that Colossians 2:11-12 does show a parallel between baptism and circumcision. Specifically Paul writes, “In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
However, we need to note the exact parallel here. Paul is not connecting baptism with physical circumcision in this text but with “a circumcision made without hands … the circumcision of Christ.” Baptism is paralleling spiritual circumcision. So, far from upholding the teaching that baptism should be administered to infants, this text enforces the idea that baptism be administered only to those who have been spiritually circumcised in their hearts, that is, only those who have been born again. Therefore, it seems clear that the New Testament practice was to baptize believers alone and that the baptism of infants ignores much clear teaching from the pages of Scripture.
Moreover, nowhere does the NT say that circumcision is unnecessary because baptism has replaced it, which would have been the most obvious and easy argument for Paul to make in the letter to the Galatians if indeed that were the case. But he doesn’t. So covenantal paedo-baptists largely misunderstand the NC and who are subjects of it.
5) The household baptisms don’t argue for infant baptism.
When talking about household baptisms, the assumption is being made in using these verses that infants were present and baptized, having not believed (of course). However, what we find on these occasions is more often than not Scripture points to the reality that all those in the house had believed. Thus, for example, Paul does say that he baptized the whole household of Stephanas in 1 Corinthians 1:16, but he also writes in 1 Corinthians 16:15 that “the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints.” In the same way, the Philippians jailer and his family were indeed all baptized on the same night, but the text also mentions that Paul and Silas “spoke the Word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house.” Therefore, we should assume they believed. Finally, Lydia’s story does not include a note that her household heard the Word and believed but we should assume this rather than that unbelieving infants were baptized in light of what we have seen thus far.
But here someone might say that it is a big stretch to think that entire households believed. To this I would say two things. One, we have record of Stephanas’ entire household believing, but I would also note that we find this in other parts of Scripture as well. In John 4:53 we find an example of a man believing Jesus “and all his household” and in Acts 18:8 Luke tells us that “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with all his household.” So we see that it does seem to be something that happens in the pages of Scripture more than we might think. Therefore, it is a greater stretch to imagine the household baptism texts are saying that unbelieving infants were baptized than to say that the entire household believed.
Therefore, our conclusion this morning is that baptism is the visible and public profession of faith made by one who has placed his faith in Christ. It should then only be administered to believers and should be administered to them quickly so that they might not have to delay making visibly public their faith in Christ. As such, it should be celebrated as the outward sign that we are member of the New Covenant people of God and therefore heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. Amen.