Baptize the Babies!
Shortly after April 25, 1981, my twin brother and myself were baptized at Saint Joe’s Catholic Church in Marion, Iowa. At our baptism, a priest took a little water and ran it over our foreheads (at least that is what I assume), and the priest committed our lives to the Catholic Church. Of course, I do not remember the details of the occasion. As far as I can tell, the event has no lasting significance in my life. My parents did their part as good Catholics.
For almost 22 years, I gave little thought to the baptism I received as an infant. I didn’t think much about what my baptism represents, its effects, or what baptism meant for salvation. I didn’t give baptism much thought until I was saved in my early twenties. It was at that time when I began to read the Bible. When I started to read my Bible, I did so with curiosity. I began to square my past religious experiences with the words of Holy Scripture. I did not intend to be critical or disrespectful of the tradition I was raised in, but as my understanding of the authority and inspiration of the Bible grew, various theological positions began to change. Including my perspective on baptism.
As with the Lord’s Table, the subject of baptism can spark debate between denominations, churches, and friends. I have a close friend who is Presbyterian. We agree with 99.9999999% of our theology, except for baptism.
What’s The Difference?
The oversimplification of the debate is this: is baptism conferred after a child is born, or is baptism for a person who first makes a profession of faith in Jesus Christ? Does the Bible affirm paedobaptism or credobaptism (or confessional baptism)? To be fair, there is a difference in meaning between Presbyterian paedobaptism and Catholic infant baptism (along with other versions of infant baptism). I will not address the differences but state a few reasons why I hold to credobaptism.
If baptism is a means of grace from God to the person that is being baptized, then we must understand who has the opportunity to receive baptism. Should a person be baptized because they were born into a particular denomination, or is it a personal decision?
So we go to God’s Word in search of an answer. I do not want to place the ultimate authority in tradition or church history (even though I have a ton of respect for traditions, creeds, and church history). From God’s Word, I want to point out the following areas.
- The Mode of Baptism
- The Meaning of Baptism
- The Mission of Baptism
Before looking at these three areas of baptism, I think it’s worth asking, where did the idea of baptism come from?
Where does Baptism Come From?
Now, I gotta pause for a moment and ask a question that I have been pondering for a while. Where did baptism come from? Why was John the Baptist not only adamant about his message but adamant about the sign that accompanied the message? Unfortunately, the Old Testament does not give us enough information to come to a definitive conclusion about the origins of baptism. Other historical documents and commentators have proposed alternative solutions. What we do know is that water immersion was a cleansing practice in Judaism, leading up to the birth of Christ. For example, in some sects of Judaism, a person had to go through a cleansing ritual before eating. A person needed to be clean before eating. This is helpful extra-biblical information because when John the Baptist arrives on the scene, taking a person and dunking him into the water would not have been entirely foreign. Conversely, taking a child and conferring infant baptism would have been strange.
A second thought that several renowned scholars put forward is that the practice of baptism was a step a Gentile needed to take to become a Jew. So, before Christ, for a gentile to become a Jew, he needed to be baptized. If this is the case, it would have been unthinkable for a Jew to be baptized because a person was already a Jew by birth.
Gentiles would have needed a process to convert to Judaism. This second view has plenty of skeptics. What I do know for sure is that nobody knows for sure of the historical origins of baptism. At the very least, we can say God had given John a directive to baptize. In my opinion, the precedent set by John the Baptist is compelling.
Regardless of the historical origins of baptism, the combination of the message and mode of baptism rankled the feathers of the religious elite in the 1st-century. Baptism would have been an anathema to many religious Jews.
You have heard of the saying, out with the old and in with the new? Well, baptism indeed signified the transition from old to the new.
The Baptism of Jesus
Now, let’s take a look at the gospel of Mark and the baptism of Jesus. We read in Mark 1,
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”– Mark 1:9–11
Before this scene, we read John the Baptist baptizing people in the Jordan River, and not a baptismal font. And then Jesus appears, and John spots the Messiah.
The Mode, βαπτίζω
Let’s look at the mode of baptism. There is little dispute that the mode of baptism in the 1st-century was immersion. The Greek word for baptism, βαπτίζω, literally means “to be put under the water.” Do you think John the Baptist looked at the Jordan River and thought, ya know, I’ll just sprinkle a little water over the forehead and call it good. This line of reasoning is similar to saying the wine in the Bible is actually grape juice.
The baptism of Jesus shows us the practice of immersion.
And when he came up out of the water. . .– Mark 1:10
To come up out of the water, you need to have gone down into the water. When you arrive at the book of Acts, it provides multiple examples of baptism by immersion. Here is just one. In Acts 8, Philip, a disciple of Jesus Christ, encounters an Ethiopian eunuch who was a court office. Philip opens up the Old Testament and shows the Ethiopian eunuch what the Old Testament says about Jesus. The Ethiopian eunuch is saved and then we read these words,
And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water . . .– Acts 8:36–39
I am sure you see the language of going down and coming up out of the water.
Listen, I love my Jesus-loving paedobaptist friends. Some of them love the gospel, and I would not hesitate to do ministry with them. However, New Testament baptism by immersion cannot be more clear.
Is there a time and place when the mode of water immersion does not need to be followed? Sure. If you have a water phobia or live in the middle of the desert. But, when possible, if we are going to follow the New Testament practice, it is best to put a person under the water. When we look at the meaning of baptism, we will understand why.
Baptism is Public
I have two more thoughts regarding the mode of baptism. It’s stating the obvious, but when we read Mark 1:1-11, baptisms were practiced in public.
I think this should still be the case. Baptism is a public response and proclamation of the work of the gospel in the life of an individual. In our context, in public can mean the local church. We don’t have that command in the Bible, “thou shalt baptize in public,” but we do have a model in the Gospel of Mark. When you take the example from John’s ministry and couple it with what the New Testament says about the local church, a compelling argument is made that a public profession should come in the context of the local church. The same logic holds for the Lord’s Table.
Also, a public baptism is a public profession of the gospel. Baptism is a testimony of the grace of God. When I went through confessional baptism in my early twenties, I publicly shared how God saved me through the gospel. I was able to share in front of many unbelieving family and friends. Baptism is a sacrament saturated by the Holy Spirit that celebrates the glory of God.
Baptisms are a powerful message of God’s saving grace. I understand that doing something publicly is not everyone’s jam. Some people hate the stage. I get it. Despite preaching almost every week, I grew up hating public speaking. However, the gospel is greater than our fears, and it is a privilege to publicly share the gospel in front of friends, family, and strangers.
Who Should be Baptized?
Another question we have to ask regarding the mode of baptism is who should be baptized? Mark gives us a clue, and the clue is further clarified in other parts of the New Testament. Those who are baptized have repented/turned from unrighteousness and confessed sin (vv. 4-5). The New Testament says this is done when a person receives faith.
Back to Philip for a moment. Before Philip baptized the Ethiopian Eunuch, he preached the gospel in other areas like Samaria. God used his preaching, and it says in Acts 8:
But 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.– Acts 8:11–12
Baptism always comes after a person confesses Jesus is the Son of God. Romans 10 nails the importance of a personal confession of faith.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.– Romans 10:9–10
I get the Presbyterian impulse to baptize a child as an entrance into the covenant of grace. If you understand the nature of Covenant Theology there is merit to the paedobaptist position. However, the biblical evidence does not support the the practice. The Bible informs theology and not the other way around.
Ok. The following three statements can be made about the mode of baptism. 1) The mode of baptism in the New Testament is by immersion. 2) The mode of baptism is public. 3) The mode of baptism is reserved for individuals who have made a profession of faith.
Now that we have seen the mode of baptism. I want to show you the meaning of baptism. What does baptism signify? To answer this question, we need to pivot from The Gospel of Mark to Romans 6. God used John the Baptist to start something new, and as the New Testament unfolds a more defined meaning of baptism. Here is Romans 6:3-6.
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.– Romans 6:3–6
These verses mean each believer is united to Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection through baptism. Baptism signifies this unity.
Baptism reminds us we are no longer under the dominion of sin, and Satan, and death, but we are a new creation free in Christ. Union with Christ is being symbolized when a person goes under the waters of baptism. Every person of faith who goes under the water symbolically dies to the old self and its sinful nature.
When they come back up out of the water, they symbolically rise into the new life they have received through Christ. It’s a comforting and confirming picture of our life in Jesus. Baptism is a visible reminder of what happened in our hearts when we trusted in Jesus. Colossians 2:11-12 shows us the beauty of the progression of faith, leading toward the symbolism of baptism.
You were also circumcised in him with a circumcision not done with hands, by putting off the body of flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, when 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.– Colossians 2:11–12, Christian Standard Bible
I think it is essential to be clear that baptism does not save a person from sin and death. Colossians 2:11 says a spiritual circumcision of the heart is how a person is saved. Jesus does the saving. Baptism is the picture of Jesus saving.
After Jesus rose from the grave, and before he ascends to heaven, he tells his disciples these words,
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 . . .– Matthew 28:18–20
This passage is referred to as the Great Commission passage. It is remarkable that in addition to the command to make disciples (by preaching the gospel and showing converts how to live the Christian life), Jesus commands us to baptize those who have been given saving faith. Of all the statements Jesus could have said, he tells the disciples to baptize. When a person is saved, we need to create space for a person to be baptized so that God’s glory would be on display.
From this quick survey of scripture, we see the thread that connects the mode of baptism to the meaning of baptism and the mission of baptism. May God, by his grace, continue to draw his people to himself, and may baptism be a bold declaration of the glory of God.