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David Mathis on “What Does the Bible Say About Baptism? Six Texts We Cannot Ignore”

27 May

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Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, said, “There is on earth no greater comfort than baptism.” Luther was famous for fighting against sin and Satan by preaching to himself, “I am baptized! I am baptized!”

Luther was not claiming to be saved simply because he was baptized. Rather, he rightly perceived the wonder and glory of baptism. He saw the visible, external act of baptism as an objective reminder of the invisible, internal reality of new birth and the faith through which we are saved on the basis of Christ alone. Luther was, after all, the great champion of justification by faith — as well as one captivated by the power and grace of baptism.

Yet, as a baptist, I can’t help but observe that something was missing in Luther’s reminder to himself about his baptism. Luther was what we call a paedobaptist (or infant-baptist). He himself was baptized as an infant, not in response to a profession of his own faith, but because of the faith of his parents — the faith they prayed would be manifest someday in their newborn son. Luther himself supported and practiced infant-baptism not only of adult converts, but also of the infants of Christian parents.

How much more powerful would recalling his baptism be if he could actually recall it? What if his baptism would have been an expression of saving faith already plainly present in his soul, rather than just a hope and prayer of his parents?

Repent, Believe, Be Baptized

Luther is not alone in leaving something to be desired in his vision of baptism. God has embedded his sacraments with more than meets the eye. For all of us, the “visible words” of the ordinances teem with depths of wonder and power into which we grow and mature. Christians of all stripes can anticipate shades and textures of meaning in Christian baptism we have yet to realize.

Before I lay out six of the most important New Testament texts to consider, let me acknowledge at the outset that godly evangelical pastors, scholars, churches, and seminaries stand on both sides of this question. The issues are many, and the arguments often complex, and I have great respect for many dear infant-baptist brothers and sisters.

Nevertheless, we credobaptists (or believer-baptists) — who baptize, typically by immersion, only those who give a credible profession of faith — have a deeper case than only what’s on the surface of the biblical text. For instance, as you often hear from believer-baptists, if you go looking in the New Testament for an example of an infant being baptized, you won’t find one. We don’t overlook the obvious, but we do go further and deeper.

(1) Mark 1:5 

All the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to [John] and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Without exception in the New Testament, baptism is tied to repentance and faith in the baptizee. John’s baptism, the precursor to Christian baptism, was explicitly, repeatedly, and irreducibly tied to repentance. “They were baptized by [John] in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Matthew 3:6). John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance(Matthew 3:11). In the Gospels and Acts, John’s baptism is summarized as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; also Acts 13:24; 19:4). 

Then, in telling the story of the early church, Acts repeatedly ties Christian baptism to repentance and faith:

  • Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
  • “Those who received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:41).
  • “When they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip” (Acts 8:12–13).

(2) Acts 18:8 

Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.

Infant-baptists often point to the “household baptisms” mentioned in Acts 16:33, 18:8, and 1 Corinthians 1:16 and argue that any infants in these households would have been baptized. However, as John Piper writes,

Nowhere in Scripture is there any instance of an infant’s being baptized. The “household baptisms” (mentioned in Acts 16:15, 33 and 1 Corinthians 1:16) are exceptions to this only if one assumes that the household included infants. But, in fact, Luke steers us away from this assumption, for example in the case of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:32), by saying that Paul first “spoke the word of the Lord . . . to all who were in [the jailer’s] house,” and then baptized them. (Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry,  156–157)

In Acts 18:8, Luke clarifies immediately, in the ensuing sentence, that simply being in the newly Christian household was not enough for baptism. Belief in Jesus was prerequisite: “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).

The believer-baptist argument goes deeper than such instances in the Gospels and Acts, but we often begin here. And not just in the early-church narratives, which can be thorny in terms of prescription, but also in the Epistles. Four anchor texts in the apostolic letters bind baptism and faith with a clarity and simplicity that is unmatched in the infant-baptist argument.

(3) Galatians 3:26–27 

In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

Paul assumes that those who have been baptized and those who have saving faith are the same group (with no sanctioned outliers). Faith and baptism belong together in the church’s practice and in the individual Christian’s experience. Those who evidence saving faith should be baptized. And those who have been baptized have given expression to saving faith.

No allowance or provision is made here, or elsewhere, for some who would have been baptized apart from a profession of faith, in anticipation of faith to come.

(4) Colossians 2:11–12

In [Christ] 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.

The mention of circumcision is important because one of the main arguments for infant-baptists is that as circumcision was administered to every male born into God’s first-covenant people, so baptism should be applied to every child (male and female) born into believing families of God’s new-covenant people, the church. However, this is not what Colossians 2, or any other New Testament text, says about circumcision.

Here “the circumcision of Christ” refers to his being cut off, at the cross, for our sins, and the “circumcision made without hands,” which Paul applies to every believer, is spiritual circumcision, that is, new birth (as commentator Doug Moo notes, “the connections . . . are between spiritual circumcision and baptism,” Colossians, 269, n18).

Of these new-covenant people who are born again, circumcised in heart, Paul expects the new-covenant inaugural rite of water baptism to have been applied. As we’ll explore more below, the new-covenant recipients of baptism, as the counterpart to old-covenant circumcision, are those who have new birth (not mere natural birth), a spiritual circumcision which does not happen apart from faith. Colossians 2:11–12, like Galatians 3:26–27, presumes active and professed faith in all baptized, not just their parents.

(5) Romans 6:3–4 

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

As in Colossians 2, the baptized are those who have been buried into Jesus’s death and raised to new life in him. Not only does the image suggest immersion, rather than sprinkling or pouring, but more importantly, “newness of life” testifies to new birth and its effects, not mere first birth.

An “old self,” into which we were born (Ephesians 2:1–3), has been crucified (Romans 6:6) or put off (Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:9). And Paul says such is true of “all of us,” all the baptized. We all now “walk in newness of life,” not in the oldness of our first birth. The infant-baptist argument that presumes faith in the newborn does not do justice to the litany of New Testament texts about conversion, putting off an old man, and walking in newness of life.

(6) 1 Peter 3:21

Baptism . . . 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.

This text is often avoided, by believer-baptists and infant-baptists alike, because it raises the question about what it meant by “baptism . . . now saves you.” However, if we understand the verse aright, we both clear up that confusion and see further confirmation that baptism is nothing less than an objective expression of subjective repentance and faith (new birth) already present (not simply hoped for) in the baptizee.

Peter anticipates we will be surprised to hear “baptism . . . saves you,” so he immediately explains. He does not mean that the external act of baptism, “as a removal of dirt from the body,” has salvific power on its own. Rather, the instrument connecting the believer to Christ for salvation is the invisible condition of the heart (faith) that is being externally expressed in baptism.

Baptism demonstrates objectively and externally the subjective and internal “appeal to God for a good conscience.” Baptism saves not as an outward act but through the inward faith it expresses. Peter’s statement hangs together on baptism expressing a saving, spiritually newborn condition of heart in the believer.

Plausible or Biblical?

Beyond the instances in the narratives, and the didactic words of the apostles tying baptism to faith, we also make our argument on theological and covenantal grounds. I’ll leave that for the next article, but there is something fitting about not moving on to those arguments too quickly. Essential to the credobaptist position is doing justice to the demonstrable teaching of the New Testament.

The best infant-baptist voices typically provide admirably plausible, reasonable, and consistent arguments. The key issue for us as Christians, however, should not be whether the argument is plausible and consistent, but whether it is taught by the actual text of Scripture.

While we must move on, in due course, to the more theological and covenantal arguments, we dare not pass too quickly over the plain, stubborn, obvious readings of the New Testaments texts. Whatever your tradition, a good argument for the nature and application of Christian baptism cannot ignore or minimize what the Bible actually says, including these six important texts.

*David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines. This article was adapted from David Mathis’ article entitled What Does the Bible Say About Baptism? Six Texts We Cannot Ignore, desiringgod.org (May 27, 2019).  

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