Baptism and Christian Discipleship: The Case for Believer’s Baptism
*A CASE FOR BAPTIZING CHRISTIAN DISCIPLES (CREDO BAPTISM)
All Christians throughout history have agreed, on the basis of Scripture, that baptism is important. Historically, baptism has not been understood to be an optional practice. It is commanded by God. But there has often been disagreement about whom baptism is for, how it should be done, and why it is significant. The dominant practice throughout church history has been to baptize infants by sprinkling or pouring water on them. In Catholic theology, this is done primarily to wash away original sin. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, however, baptism is understood primarily as the rite by which a baby or adult is joined to the church, the mystical body of Christ. Many forms of Protestantism also practice infant baptism, but they vary in their understanding as to what this practice accomplishes. For example, the theology of traditional Lutheran churches is similar to the Catholic understanding: Baptism washes away original sin. Presbyterian churches reject this understanding, however, believing instead that baptism is the means by which children are included in the covenant God made with his people, similar to what circumcision signified in the Old Testament.
Other forms of Protestantism believe baptism is reserved for people who have made a personal decision to believe in and follow Jesus. Some groups perform this ordinance by pouring water on a believer’s head, but most carry it out by immersing the person in water. Here, too, there is a variety of understandings. A few groups who practice adult baptism believe that baptism is God’s means of remitting sin in a believer’s life. Others hold to a more Presbyterian view, seeing it as the rite that publicly initiates a person into God’s covenant. The most prevalent understanding among those who practice adult baptism, however, is that it is an outward public testimony of God’s inward work. This is the most common view among Baptists. All of these issues are debated within evangelicalism, but the issue most debated is whether baptism should be performed on children of believing parents or only on people who have made their own decision to believe in and follow Jesus. Hence, this is the issue the two essays in this section address.
The Biblical Argument
Early on in church history, the church began to practice infant baptism. According to adherents of the believer’s baptism view, this was a mistake. Baptism is intended as the initiating rite into Christian discipleship and thus is intended only for people who are old enough to make a decision to believe in and obey Jesus Christ. Baptism is meaningless apart from a personal decision to follow Jesus. The New Testament supports this perspective. In contrast to the Old Testament, in which God entered into a covenant with an entire nation, in the New Testament, God’s covenant is with all believers. The class of those who are in covenant with God changed from a national class (the Jews) to a class of people who personally decide something (believers). Consequently, it made sense in the Old Testament to give the sign of the covenant (circumcision) to infants, since they were part of the nation with which God was covenanting. It makes no sense in regard to New Testament teaching, however, because God’s covenant is with believers, and infants cannot believe.
Throughout the New Testament, salvation is offered to and baptism is commanded of only people who can meet the conditions of repenting, believing, and obeying Jesus Christ. We see this even in the ministry of John the Baptist, who was preparing the way for Jesus Christ. Mark writes: “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him [John] and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”(Mark 1:5, emphasis added). The ones who were baptized were the ones who confessed their sins. Infants, of course, cannot do this. Hence, there is no reason to suppose that infants were among those whom John baptized. The same may be said about the ministry of Jesus. Though Jesus did not personally baptize people (John 4:2), his message was essentially the same as John’s. “The kingdom of God has come near,” he taught, so people must “repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). What made a person a participant in the kingdom of God was his or her willingness to repent, believe, and obey the gospel. This is why Jesus’ disciples baptized only people who were old enough to be made disciples (John 4:1-2). The same point is reflected in Jesus’ Great Commission when he says, “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”(Matt. 28:19-20). Baptism was intended to be part of the process of making someone a disciple and makes sense only in the context of disciple-making. It was not intended for people too young to be taught and to decide whether they wanted to obey all that Jesus commanded.
The truth that baptism is a part of disciple-making becomes even more evident in the ministry of the earliest disciples. They obeyed Jesus’ command to make disciples and therefore to baptize and teach them. In the first sermon preached after the Holy Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost, Peter exclaimed: Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.Acts 2:38-39 Whereas in the Old Testament it meant something to be born a Jew, as opposed to a Gentile, in the New Testament, the only thing that mattered was whether a person repented and submitted to Jesus Christ. This is why the sign of the covenant was different. In the Old Testament, the sign was given to any male born a Jew. In the New Testament, it was given only to those who were born again into Jesus Christ (John 3:5). Only if one repents of sin does baptism into Jesus Christ mean anything. It is true that in this passage Peter promises that the gift of the Holy Spirit is promised not only to adults but also to their children. Those who practice infant baptism argue on this basis that baptism must be administered to children of believing parents. This interpretation reads too much into the text, however. Peter goes on to say that the promise is “for all who are far away,” but no one believes Peter was suggesting that we should baptize all Gentiles. The promise is for them in the sense that God wants to pour out his Spirit on them (Acts 2:17). But they become recipients of the promise-and we should baptize them-only when they make a personal decision to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. This is why Peter immediately adds that the promise is for “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”It is not for everyone in general. It is for everyone who will repent and believe and thus for everyone whom God calls. The same holds true for Peter’s assertion that the promise is not only for adults but also for their children. God wants children to receive the Holy Spirit, but the promise is applied to them and we should baptize them only when they personally repent and believe. Baptism is an act of discipleship that can be entered into only by people old enough to be disciples. This is why every example of baptism in the New Testament involves a person old enough to decide to follow Christ. Never do we read about infants being baptized. For example, it was only after the Samaritans “believed Philip” as he preached the good news that “they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12). It was only after the Ethiopian eunuch embraced the good news about Jesus that he was baptized (Acts 8:35-38). The apostle Paul was baptized after he encountered Jesus and obeyed the heavenly vision (Acts 9:18). Peter commanded Cornelius and his household to be baptized only after he saw evidence of their faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 10:44-48). It was only after God opened Lydia’s heart and she believed that she and her household were baptized (Acts 16:14-15). And it was only after the disciples of John the Baptist accepted Paul’s teaching about Jesus that they were baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus” and received the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:5-6). Without exception, baptism follows faith and constitutes the first act of discipleship made by a responsible person who has decided to follow Jesus. Defenders of infant baptism argue that the references in Acts to households being baptized suggest that infants were baptized along with adults (Acts 11:13-14; 16:15, 30-34; 18:8). There is no reason to assume this, however. While all servants were included in a “household” in the ancient Roman world, children generally were not. This seems to be Luke’s perspective, for in the same context in which he speaks about households being baptized, he speaks about households being taught, believing, and rejoicing (Acts 16:32, 34; 18:8). Finally, some of the meanings given to baptism in the New Testament imply that it is intended only for people old enough to be disciples. For example, Paul says that baptism shows that “our old self was crucified with [Christ]” (Rom. 6:6) and that now we should “walk in newness of life”(Rom. 6:4). Infants can hardly do so. Similarly, Peter says that baptism “now saves you” not as a literal washing “of dirt from the body” but “as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:2 1). But how can an infant have a good (or bad) conscience? Baptism should be administered only to those who are old enough to make a decision to die to sin, walk in a new life, and enjoy a good conscience before God.
The importance of discipleship. History testifies to the truth that infant baptism produces nominal, apathetic Christians. If someone is considered a Christian by virtue of being born to Christian parents (or in a Christian state), then the urgency of stepping out on one’s own and making the radical decision to follow Jesus is compromised. This is not to suggest that all Christians baptized as infants are passionless or that the practice of infant baptism causes one to be passionless. But this practice invariably tends in that direction, and for obvious reasons. By contrast, the practice of adult baptism forces each individual to make his or her own decision to follow Christ.
Responding to Objections
1. Scripture passages oppose this view. Paedobaptists point to several clusters of texts that they believe support their practice. For example, they often point to the New Testament practice of “household”baptism. But as already shown, these passages do not require or even suggest that infants were baptized. Some try to support infant baptism on the basis of Paul’s statement that children are “sanctified” by believing parents (1 Cor. 7:14). But this passage says nothing about baptism. Paul is simply claiming that children are “set apart” -namely, for a unique godly influence-when their parents believe. Finally, some try to support infant baptism on the basis of Jesus’ practice of accepting and blessing little children (e.g., Mark 10:14-16). But again, this passage says nothing about baptism. Of course Jesus loved and accepted children! But he never tried to make disciples out of them. Why should we suppose, therefore, that he would approve of baptizing them?
2. This view ignores the continuity of the old and new covenants. Some argue that believer’s baptism ignores the continuity between the old and new covenants in general and their signs-circumcision and baptism-in particular. Admittedly, the covenant concept does connect the Old and New Tetaments, and the Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled in the new covenant. However, those who baptize infants have failed to see the decisive shift in the new covenant as it relates to the fulfillment of Abraham’s promise. It is no longer a genetic connection that determines a child of Abraham but rather the conscious act of faith. Paul makes this unequivocally clear: Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,”so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed (Galatians 3:6-9). God’s elect people are no longer a nationality. They are a people who do something, namely, believe. Hence, while the sign of belonging to the covenantal community could be given to physical newborns under the old covenant, it should be reserved for spiritual newborns under the new covenant.
3. This view has been influenced by modern individualism. Some argue that the practice of believer’s baptism has been unduly influenced by Western individualism, which rejects the biblical view of familial corporateness within the saved community. In the Bible, it is argued, infants of covenant keepers were regarded as members of the covenant because people in biblical times, unlike people today, did not define individuals apart from their association with a community. In reply, it is not Western individualism that drives the believer’s baptism position. Rather, it is the New Testament’s concept of personal salvation. Each individual must be “born from above” just as each individual must be born from the womb (John 3:3-6). Believers are to belong to and be mutually defined by their involvement in the community of God’s covenantal people, but first they must individually decide to become disciples. According to New Testament teaching, the first act of obedience they perform as disciples is to be baptized.
4. This view runs counter to church tradition. Finally, the believer’s baptism position is often rejected on the grounds that it runs counter to the majority view throughout church history. Two things must be said in response. First, evangelicals cannot appeal to church tradition to settle an issue. The affirmation of sola scriptura means that Scripture is the sole authority on matters of faith and practice. Christians should not easily set aside traditional perspectives, but they can and must do so if traditional views disagree with Scripture. Second, while it is true that the infant baptism view has been the primary perspective throughout church history, it is also true that there is no explicit evidence of infant baptism until the second century and no evidence that it was dominant until much later. This is plenty of time for an aberration of Christian practice and theology to take place. Indeed, most evangelicals would agree that the dominant theology of baptism was becoming aberrant by the mid-second century, because Christians at this time were increasingly holding that baptism literally washed away sin and was necessary for salvation, a view almost all evangelicals reject.
*Article authored by Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy. Adapted from Chapter 14: “Baptism and Christian Discipleship (The Believer’s Baptism View) in the Book Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002.