Resources on Baptism
by Michael Spotts
Here are some of my older writings on baptism on one page. God bless your studies.
Jul 24, 2014 — Michael Spotts
Scripture, rather than tradition, holds the supreme place for deciding all matters of faith and practice. Nowhere is this more apparent than in regard to sacraments. At the same time, early Christian documents reveal an openness to diversity in baptismal modes that we may find surprising. For instance, a manual called the Didache (c. 150 AD) lists several methods that were considered equally “valid.” The list includes wading into rivers or lakes, standing in cold or warm pools, or simply having water poured over the head three times. Historical accounts and illustrations from the first three centuries suggest the most common mode was pouring or sprinkling water over the head.
We might be tempted to interpret this as proof of how quickly the church departed from apostolic teaching, but really this only exposes our assumptions. It is better to ask how ancient Christians understood baptism, and examine whether we have a full-orbed appreciation of the sacrament. This will explain the practical “indifference” (adiophora) non-Baptist pastors and theologians generally show to the mode of baptism.
The variety of acceptable modes of baptism don’t spring from disinterest in Biblical doctrine. They are a way of acknowledging several layers of symbolism built right into the sacrament. Each method—submersion, washing, sprinkling—highlights a distinct but complementary aspect of Christ’s benefits to his people that come through the Trinity. Let's survey some of those meanings and how they fit into different modes of baptism.
Submersion: Burial with Christ
Those from Baptist backgrounds are often familiar with submersion as a portrayal of death and resurrection. We are “buried with Christ in baptism” and “raised to newness of life” (Rom 6:4). As a result, those who believe in submersion-only tend to emphasize the willingness of baptized persons to walk after Christ. Coming up from the water becomes mostly associated with personal sanctification. There is truth in this position, but it is not the whole story.
In the first place, baptism is a sign of the New Covenant. As such, it primarily signifies Jesus going under the “floodwaters” of God’s judgment in the place of his people. His death is counted to his disciples through union with him in faith. If in baptism we prioritize our “dying” to habits of sin, we will wonder why, as it were, we keep climbing out of the grave. We are never fully buried to the practice of sin in this life. Thankfully, the death pictured in baptism is complete because it is first of all Christ’s death in our place. Moreover, the sacramental element of water—not cemetery soil—pictures the torrent of God’s justice washing over the object of his wrath. Just as Pharaoh’s army and Noah’s generation were cut off by a violent submersion into the depths, baptism simultaneously proclaims that Christ bore our penalty and became our ark, our Way between the waters, as it were.
“God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism… corresponds to this…” (1 Pet 3:20-21).
Did Noah’s family have to be submerged to be saved? Quite the opposite! They might have been sprinkled on as they ran for cover, but it was enough that Christ would be submerged for them. In baptism, a little water goes a long way to show our connection to Christ’s descent into the deep. This is what we find in 1 Cor. 10:1-3:
“Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.”
Jews partook of baptism and the Lord’s supper, as it were, by passing through the Red Sea, eating manna and sacrifices, and drinking from the Rock in the wilderness. These signs pointed to Christ’s substitution, therefore God’s people did not have to be personally submerged in the sea to receive his benefits. In fact, according to Ex. 15:19, they “walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea,” which means their feet never got wet! At most they were sprayed by the water walled up around them.
Washing: Removing the Stain of Sin
Perhaps the most frequent motif in the New Testament for the application of Christ’s benefits is that of washing. In the Upper Room, Jesus said that salvation entails being “washed” (nipsō) or “bathed” (leloumenos). These words vividly portray the Spirit’s work of cleansing the saints from the guilt of sin (justification) and the presence of sin (sanctification):
“You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:11)
“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5).”
These same terms are used interchangeably with “baptism” to described the Pharisees’ tradition of washing their hands and furniture:
“The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash (nipsōntai) their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash (baptisōntai). And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing (baptismous) of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches” (Mk 7:3-7).
Pharisees did not bathe their entire bodies each time they ate. They were regarded as ritually clean so long as a portion of their body came under water. Nor did they have to submerge their furniture after every meal—imagine it! Those who fixate on the amount rather than the element of water are somewhat like Peter in the upper Room. As Jesus began washing the disciples’ feet, Peter became anxious. He asked the Lord to wash his whole body as a way of assuring himself of his total spiritual cleansing:
“‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.” (John 13:8-9)
It was enough to wash Peter’s feet because he was already clean through faith. Water signifies but does not itself affect spiritual cleansing. It is God’s promise to cleanse those who call on Christ’s name, not the amount of water, that counts in baptism:
“Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).
The terms “washing” and “bathing” are used to describe a man rinsing dirt from his eyes, and the preparation of a corpse for burial (Jn 9:11, 37). In neither case are the persons entirely submerged. The idea is rather of wiping away debris and filth. The example of a husband bathing his wife is compared to the sanctifying work of Christ (Eph 5:25). One special example is that of the Philippian jailer whose act of cleansing Paul’s wounds is set alongside his own baptism:
“He took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family” (Acts 16:33)
There is no reason to suppose the jailer’s baptism was by submersion when the context is one of reciprocal washing. Cleaning Paul’s wounds was the convert’s first fruit of repentance; shortly thereafter Paul washed the man’s wounded conscience with an outward sign of inward grace—and his whole house! Given the late hour, it is unlikely they went seeking pools or rivers but simply applied the same water used to treat Paul’s wounds. Ancient homes usually had limited reservoirs (think, large jars) for drinking, cooking, and cleaning but not enough to submerge a dozen or more people. Paul’s concern in this case would be to signify the power of Christ to cleanse the jailer and his household from sins.
Sprinkling: Freedom from an Evil Conscience
We’ve seen that Noah’s family and the Jews passing through the Red Sea were probably only sprinkled with water. However, the imagery of effusion is actually more specific and significant. It harkens back to the Aaronic priesthood. The priest would dip a branch of hyssop in the blood of a sacrifice. Daubing it over the guilty party, he pronounced them ritually clean and they breathed a sigh of relief. Against the accusations of their conscience, the sprinkling blood reassured them that God would accept a substitute, someone to bear the penalty they deserved.
The book of Hebrews makes clear that the blood of bulls and goats did not take away sins, but pointed forward to Christ. By shedding his blood to death Jesus provided a perfect sacrifice. When God’s people lay hold of the promise in faith, their conscience is “sprinkled,” as it were, with Jesus’ atoning blood:
“Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb 10:22).
Notice how the writer mixes metaphors freely. He includes both sprinkling and washing because they are compatible. Both speak of Christ’s death applied for our cleansing. Furthermore, the inward, renewing work of the Spirit is said to be “poured out” on us richly, resulting in faith and justification (Titus 3:5-6). Effusion is a way of depicting this outpouring. It portrays the good news that God’s elect receive Christ’s benefits, including the Spirit, out of mere grace. “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness” (Tit 3:3). The message is all the more apparent when pronounced over a helpless infant!
Which method should we use?
If each mode speaks truthfully and poignantly about the promises held out in Christ, which method should we use? At first glance, it might seem John the Baptist preferred submersion:
“John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized” (Jn 3:22).
Before concluding “plentiful water” implies submersion, consider that John baptized hundreds or thousands daily. His ministry took place in the wilderness where even a handful of water for so many people would necessitate a large natural supply. Given what we know of Jewish and ancient Christian customs, it’s likely John stood in the Jordan scooping up water to pour over his disciples. Moreover, the Baptizer did not fully anticipate Christ’s death. Rather than burial, he was concerned to communicate cleansing from sin. Hence he hesitated to baptize Jesus. His Lord had no need of a spiritual bath and it made John uneasy to portray such a notion.
Acts 8 shows a similar instance of entering water without necessitating submersion:
“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?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him” (Acts 8:36-37)
Whatever “down into the water” means, it is spoken of both of them. Unless we think Philip submerged himself while baptizing the eunuch, it makes sense to understand the two walking down a steep bank into the water and then returning. Nothing more is specified about how Philip conducted the sacrament. If pouring is sufficient, one might ask how come they waited for a river rather than using the water they had on hand? As they were traveling through the desert with limited supplies, it must not have occurred to use drinking water for a baptism. Nor was Philip so anxious that he couldn’t wait for a wadi. Common sense informs how we exercise sacraments.
Given the modes available, the decision about which to use is often motivated by practical and traditional concerns. Practically, John the Baptist was a wilderness prophet. A river was a good choice for him. Those laboring in prisons, however, might have no option but to sprinkle with a cup of tepid water. Should we refuse baptism to shut-ins? Thankfully, we don’t have to.
It is perfectly acceptable to immerse, but an exclusive insistence is fairly recent. There is little evidence of widespread preference for immersion prior to the 1500s. In fact, even today the majority of professing Christians are effused as infants. For all their misconceptions about what baptism does, Eastern and Roman branches of Christendom perform an outwardly acceptable baptism recognized by the Reformers. Combined with many Protestant denominations, effusion almost certainly remains the most common mode of baptism.
When baptizing infants, pastors usually spare the child—and its parents!—the nakedness or drenched outfit submersion would entail. Washing the baby’s head sufficiently communicates that Christ, our Head, achieves everything necessary to salvation for his elect. As children grow, they should be instructed to believe on Jesus alone if they haven’t already. Moreover, infant baptism informs them about God’s kindness. Before they could do anything to merit his favor he granted them a benedictory sign.
Once, upon seeing an infant baptized, I overheard a girl ask her mother, “why is the pastor washing that baby?” She recognized the sign but not its significance. Her mother replied quietly, “Baptism is God’s sign to her. It tells us that even babies are dirty in their hearts, but just like the pastor washes her outside, Jesus promises to make her clean through faith.” With some trepidation, the girl asked, “was I baptized?” Her mother answered, “Yes. God wanted you to have his promise, that if you trust Jesus, you are already clean in God’s sight. Do you trust Jesus?” The girl nodded her head. “Baptism will remind you of the forgiveness you have in Him.”
A Conclusion and a Warning
In the end, the mode is not essential but the element is. Water forms a symbolic connection to the benefits of Christ’s headship, to be received in faith from the Trinity. His substitutionary death and glorious resurrection; our regeneration, justification, and sanctification, are all pictured in baptism. At the same time, the sign holds up a warning. If Christ died for believers, surely those who do not believe will come under the flood themselves. If his Spirit regenerates and washes the elect, then those who remain in unbelief and rebellion must be thought dead and dirty before God. Baptism is both an incredible promise and a terrible warning. The seal that assures and stirs believers to walk in newness of life, is also a sign that summons unconverted souls to faith lest they drown under a sea of divine wrath.
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Discipling Children In Grace
June 2, 2014 — Michael Spotts
The following is from a letter I wrote to a mother of two young daughters. She is new to the Reformed faith and still adjusting to the place we give to children in the church. I also struggled for years to see how the covenant relates to our little ones, so I hope it helps you understand God's will on the issue.
One emphasis of the Reformed tradition which I find precious (and more importantly, biblical) is that we regard our children as part of the covenant community as we know it. What I mean is that while God knows perfectly which ones are true believers, the congregation as we know it necessarily includes both saints and “aints.” Extreme cases sometimes require us to exclude people from the body, but most of the time it is simply too hard to tell who is sincere. Thankfully, we don't need God's degree of certainty to have fellowship with the church. Until officers of the church have no other choice but excommunication, God teaches us not to default to doubt but to regard expressions of faith as genuine. When marking the bounds of the covenant community, we believe it is better to err on the side of grace and hopefulness.
This is true of our children as well. God's promise, “I will be a God to you and your children,” was not a promise to save every physical descendant of Abraham (Gen 17:7-8; Rom 11:7). Rather, the promise established a visible community of faith. This community passed is down through generations, as well as by enfolding outsiders like Rahab into the congregation (Heb 11:31). Some of Abraham's heirs, like Esau, related to God only in an outward, formal way. They eventually apostatized, or await the Last Day to be exposed. Still, they received the benefits of hearing the Word and living among saints; for that, their parents must have been grateful. Others, like Jacob, believed inwardly and spiritually. To them, Abraham's Lord was their God in a saving way.
God knows this ultimate distinction as election and reprobation. However, it wasn't Abraham or Isaac's job to know which-was-which from infancy (Rom 9:10-13). The duty of parents was simply to give their children the sign of the gospel and teach them to trust in Messiah (Rom 4:10-11). This parent-child relationship continues in the New Testament. The covenant-community is pictured as a tree with large branches extending out from Abraham (Rom 11:17-24). When Jesus came, Jews who denied him were broken off from the visible church. Gentiles who professed faith in Christ, however, were grafted into that same Abrahamic community-tree through baptism. They are no longer counted as Gentiles, but as Christians (Gal 3:27-29). This is important. Just as Abraham's natural children were counted as part of the community-tree and received the sign of the Faith (circumcision; Col 2:11-12), so our children spring out as branches of the covenant community. If they later deny the faith, they will be “broken off” from our community, but until then we charitably and hopefully count them among us.
Reformed Christians understand baptism quite differently than some other groups. Because the New Covenant is a covenant of grace established in Christ's death and resurrection, we see baptism not as a sign of our actions but of Christ having undergone the floodwaters of God's wrath and being raised for our justification. It is not primarily a picture of our personal devotion, but of Christ's saving work which the Holy Spirit applies in the Father's time. It is not the badge of our spiritual achievement, but the pledge of God to give more grace to needy sinners struggling to walk after him. Only secondly does it portray the response which we perform in faith, being “raised to newness of life” (Rom 6:4).
Ever since grace reached into fallen creation, God has used physical signs to teach the children of believers. Rainbows, passover feasts, circumcision, and baptism, were all tangible pictures by which believing parents, levitical priests, and New Testament pastors were enabled to preach God's mercy to little children and raise them as disciples resting in grace. Baptism does not replace personal faith, but points our faith to Jesus. It cries out, “you must be cleansed inwardly, and Christ's blood is sufficient.”
It does not matter that some children cannot remember being baptized, any more than Abraham's children needed to remember being circumcised in order to understand the significance of the act. The sign of the gospel came to them when they were powerless to earn it. Just as the water of baptism washed them when they were physically helpless babies, the promise of baptism is that God's grace is given to people who are spiritually helpless. Spiritually speaking, we all become as children when we are born again. We do not contribute to the new birth any more than we did to our first birth, but receive it graciously.
This is very practical. Sanctification is a fruit of grace, therefore, if we try to disciple children without treating them as recipients of grace, we will only train them in legalism. Disregarding their place in the church implies that childlike faith is not enough to join in Christian fellowship—the exact opposite of what Jesus said (Mk 10:15). If we believe our children stand outside the covenant community, we will always question the sincerity of their prayers and confessions... and they will begin to doubt, too. This is part of why so many Evangelicals depend on personal piety to feel accepted. Sometimes an extraordinary amount of maturity is required before children are acknowledged as believers at all. Unfortunately, it results in a culture where obedience must precede assurance, instead of flowing from it.
For all these reasons, God mercifully tells us to regard them within the community as we know it. In fact, we have no reason to doubt his kindness to work in them from a young age. If we honor their imperfect, little professions, then we must count them among us as disciples in grace. God says, “don't doubt it. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Let me worry about the secret things of the heart. Focus on raising them to trust my grace even after they stumble. Teach them to stand upon grace and repent in hope.” Instead of trying to convert them, we can start focusing on refreshing them in grace and conformity to Christ.
Grace is truly unmerited goodness. It can come at any age, to John in his mother's womb or David on his mother's breast (Luke 1:41, Psm 22:9). Even if we aren't certain, we have no reason to doubt grace has already come to our covenant children. When your daughters misbehave, remember they hardly know the Word. Until they grow and learn, they are sort of like Old testament saints who had less light of the gospel and so “hardly acted like Christians.” Be patient. Nurture their faith and wait for it to blossom into godliness. The kindness of God leads us to repentance, and when we show our children that same grace, it fills them with life-changing gratitude.
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OCT 15, 2013 — MICHAEL SPOTTS
Even before coming to the Reformed position, I agred that the “argument from silence” places the burden of proof on anti-paedobaptists. This is because the earliest Christians were not Gentiles or modern Baptists, but were descendants of Abraham, either through direct physical descent or by conversion, and came with distinct cultural assumptions.
First-century Jews who embraced Christ were not necessarily "getting saved" for the first time. They were recognizing Jesus as the fulfillment of promises given to Abraham, which they and their children were heirs of. Having previously believed on the Lord, baptism could not be taken as the sign of having faith for the first time, but as the rite of entry into the latest phase of the visible covenant people. These Jews saw themselves as the continuing core of the community of the faith. Jews who rejected Messiah were considered "broken off" from the visible covenant people, but no indication exists that members of the church ceased including their children as "natural branches" of the Abrahamic promise (Rom 11).
As well, first century Jewish Christians recognized circumcision to have been a seal of the righteousness which Abraham had through faith. Paul taught them that it was not a sign of one's believing, but of what the church believes upon. Therefore it was given to Abraham's children, whom God called heirs with him of the promise. Note, the promise was not to be elect or regenerate. The promise is that God saves those within the visible church who trust in his saving work through the promised Seed, Jesus Christ. The fact that God included Abraham's children in the sign shows that he counts them part of the visible community for as long as they do not openly spurn the promise.
This had been the practice for 2000 years. Including children in the covenant community as the "natural" line of the Abrahamic promise would therefore have been the default position of Jews. So obvious, even, as not to warrant the kind of discussions we now hope to find in antiquity. One person comments, "Paul notes that baptism has replaced circumcision (Col. 2:11–12). In that passage, he refers to baptism as "the circumcision of Christ" and "the circumcision made without hands." Of course, usually only infants were circumcised under the Old Law; circumcision of adults was rare, since there were few converts to Judaism. If Paul meant to exclude infants, he would not have chosen circumcision as a parallel for baptism.
This comparison between who could receive baptism and circumcision is an appropriate one. In the Old Testament, if a man wanted to become a Jew, he had to believe in the God of Israel and be circumcised. In the New Testament, if one wants to become a Christian, one must believe in God and Jesus and be baptized. In the Old Testament, those born into Jewish households could be circumcised in anticipation of the Jewish faith in which they would be raised. Thus in the New Testament, those born in Christian households can be baptized in anticipation of the Christian faith in which they will be raised. The pattern is the same: If one is an adult, one must have faith before receiving the rite of membership; if one is a child too young to have faith, one may be given the rite of membership in the knowledge that one will be raised in the faith. This is the basis of Paul’s reference to baptism as "the circumcision of Christ"—that is, the Christian equivalent of circumcision.
Even in the books of the New Testament that were written later in the first century, during the time when children were raised in the first Christian homes, we never—not even once—find an example of a child raised in a Christian home who is baptized only upon making a "decision for Christ." Rather, it is always assumed that the children of Christian homes are already Christians, that they have already been "baptized into Christ" (Rom. 6:3). If infant baptism were not the rule, then we should have references to the children of Christian parents joining the Church only after they had come to the age of reason, and there are no such records in the Bible."
Like the issue of Trinity, infant inclusion in the signs of the covenant seems to have received little attention until there was opposition to it in the fourth century—although, Tertulian (160-230 A.D.) was the only one who questioned infant baptism. The bulk of his objection, however, was due to his heresy that sin after baptism was almost unforgivable. This is not to say it was not taught or discussed, but that it did not merit the volume of written argument that would come down to us through the ages.
"No incident is recorded in the earliest of Christian history which gives evidence that baptism was forbidden to any person on the basis of an age limit, or that the right of a Christian parent to have his children baptized had ever been challenged or renounced."
The same is true of other practices which may be rightly inferred to hail from the first century church, but which we don't have lasting records of.
Many of the inscriptions in the catacombs of Rome, dating from the same time (beginning of the 3rd century) indicate that small children were treated as “believers,” etc.
- A one year-old “servant of God”
- Several twelve year-olds, “believers from their birth”
These inscriptions are consistent with infant baptism.
CYPRIAN (2ND CEN.)
In his letter to bishop Fidus (Letter #58, parag. 2, 6; ANF 5:353-54; ca. A.D. 250), Cyprian answers the bishop’s question concerning the proper time of baptism: should the child be
baptized at eight days of age, or immediately after birth?
“But in respect of the case of infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized
and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. . . 7.3 . And therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council, that by us no one ought to be hindered from baptism and from the grace of God, who is merciful and kind and loving to all. Which, since it is to be observed and maintained in respect of all, we think is to be even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born persons, who on this very account deserve more from our help and from the divine mercy, that immediately, on the very beginning of their birth, lamenting and weeping, they do nothing else but entreat.”
This quotation proves that the popular mind in the church accepted infant baptism without question—the only issue being the number of days to wait. It also shows the linkage of baptism to circumcision in the mind of the church in Cyprian’s day. See: http://wrs.edu/Materials_for_Web_Site/Courses/Theology_4/Chapter_7-Subjects_Baptism.pdf
In the end, I realized that the physical signs are much more about comforting and instructing God's people, than as mile-markers of spiritual achievement, as I formerly had.
Dr. Clark's treatment is concise and useful: http://clark.wscal.edu/baptism.php
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July 12, 2013 — Michael Spotts
I was asked what has been the most significant change to my beliefs since first coming to faith in Christ. Without a doubt, it has been to align with the Reformed doctrine of baptism. Really, the issue was over whether or not God includes children of professing believers in the community of the visible church. The conclusion I came to was a resounding, “yes!” But why?
First of all, I came to have a “now but not yet” view of God's covenant people. What I mean is that when we speak of the church, we have to consider it as two concentric circles, representing different stages of redemptive history. There is the smaller interior circle of the elect. This is everyone who will be regenerated, who will persevere in faith to the end. The number of the elect is determined by grace from eternity. None of them will be lost. This circle is the “eschatological church,” the final form of the church after Christ removes the tares from the wheat. This perfected state is “not yet.”
Then there is the broader outer circle. This circle contains the elect, but also includes those who belong to the church visibly through baptism and profession of faith yet do not inwardly trust Christ. These outer-ring-only members of the visible church are fill the pews but are tares among the wheat. They will be sifted at the judgment. They may fall away from the Christian faith, but not from faith in Christ, because they never really had it. This state of the church is “now.”
Some people feel uncomfortable with this mixture in the church at present. They want a perfectly “pure” visible church—only one circle, all elect. In this sense, they have “jumped the eschatological gun” by wanting the conclusive state to come before it's appointed time. Sadly, in their attempt to pluck out unregenerate people they set up rules and legalistic hoops designed to prove who really has faith. This often results in more harm than good because it makes legalists of the unbelievers and injures many weak but genuine believers who doubt their salvation on account of standards God never asked them to be measured by.
Jesus once told a parable of the Kingdom describing workers who found weeds mixed in with the crop of grain. “Shall we remove them, Master?” The Master replied, “No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Matt 13). Until the end, God asks us to exclude from the church only those who prove their unbelief by sinning or blaspheming so badly that they must be excommunicated (1 Cor. 5).
With this understanding of the covenant people, it makes sense that God includes some who may or may not yet be regenerate in the visible church, including our children. Just as the Lord instructed Isaac to give the seal of righteousness through faith to both his twins, though one would never come to faith (Rom. 4:11; 9), he chooses now to have us include children of professing believers among the number of the church. He knows who is who and will sort it out as they grow up, rather than have us injure them by doubting their little expressions of faith from day one.
As de facto members of God's covenant people, our children are welcomed into the life of discipleship with the sign of Christ's death and resurrection—baptism. Coupled with the preaching of the Word, this physical rite teaches and instructs our little ones to trust in Jesus' substitutionary death for salvation and in the application of the Spirit for sanctification. They are entitled the sign, not because they necessarily believe or are elect, but because God is especially merciful to our children in giving them tools to understand the gospel. Though God is not limited to the natural line of the family tree, he has always been pleased to pluck fruit from it. Accordingly, he tends the vine with special care (Rom 11). Finally, baptism warns every recipient that if they do not believe inwardly but are only washed outwardly, they too will perish under the floodwaters of God's judgement (1 Pet 3:18-22).
In short, I no longer see baptism primarily as an individualistic sign of personal devotion or an experience. Rather, I see it primarily as an emblem of the gospel. It is a physical sign, like circumcision, which God has been pleased to use for instructing his covenant people of faith, infant and adult alike, just as he did in the time of Abraham with whom we believe on Christ.
For more information on this issue of covenant and sacramental signs, I suggest Rev. Daniel R Hyde 's book, "Jesus Loves the little children." More scholarly treatments include "By Oath Consigned," by Meredith Kline, and "Word, Water, and Spirit," by J.V. Fesko.
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October 19, 2011 — Michael Spotts
I spent years being confused over the issue of infant baptism. Because of my background in certain denominations I had assumptions about what baptism means, what it says about those who receive it. So I wondered why Reformed Christians—and virtually all Christians prior to the 16th Century—baptize their children. These people seem to be spot-on about grace, faith, and the gospel. So was it a matter of superstition and error? Certainly some practices of it, such as the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox way. But I came to realize that biblical infant baptism is about obedience to God in how He organizes the visible Church. It’s also an amazing blessing to parents and children. I hope to help make that clear in the following paragraphs, and many thanks to my pastor and others who helped along the way.
KING DAVID’S COMFORT
A good place to start when we consider this subject is not at baptism itself, but to ask on what basis David took comfort when his infant died? [2 Sam. 12:22] Certainly David didn’t think the child was sinless. To the Psalmist, there was no period of innocence before a supposed “age of accountability.” We are all born dead in Adam’s sin and our very natures are against God. [Eph. 2:1-5, 1 Cor. 15:22.] David wrote, “from the womb we go forth speaking lies,” and, “I have sinned and done wrong since the day I was born.” [Psm. 58:3, 51:5] Surely this thought could not have comforted him when his son died and went to stand before God. And yet David arose and ate with peace, very unlike his reaction when Absolom, his adult son, died.
David’s comfort lay in the fact that God chose to associate all of Abraham’s children, male and female alike, with the “seal of the righteousness that he had by faith.” (Rom. 4:11) This outward seal was circumcision. God gave it to Abraham as a promise of what he personally had through faith, but also commanded that it be given to every son of those who believed together with Abraham.
“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.” [Gen. 17:8-9]
To people raised in Baptist circles, it can seem strange that this sign of righteousness through faith would be given to children too young to express faith. Yet here it is, God promising Abraham’s children an everlasting life with him. “I will be their God.” Even going so far as to give a physical sign of that promise. To understand this, we have to consider what the sign meant and why it was to be applied.
CIRCUMCISION AND BAPTISM: BOTH SIGNS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS IN CHRIST
As we have said, before Christ came, the sign of righteousness through faith was circumcision. This ritual cutting looked forward to when Messiah, the Son of Abraham, would be cut off in death. This symbolism was heightened by its connection with blood and pain. Furthermore, as the excess skin was considered impure and to be thrown away, on the cross Jesus was treated as an unholy thing and cast out of God’s presence. Lastly, circumcision was done to that part of a male because it signified that a son in the line of Abraham must die for sins.
When Jesus accomplished His work on the cross circumcision was fulfilled as a sign. From then on, a new sign of Abraham’s faith would be given: baptism in water. Whereas circumcision looked forward to Christ’s sacrificial death, baptism points to the application of that work to our lives. To understand this, we have to see how judgment and water are connected in scripture. No less than three times in the Old Testament God’s people are delivered through water. Once at the great flood, then at the Red Sea, and then under the cloud through the deadly wilderness.
“God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 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…” [1 Peter 3:20-21]
Paul also relates baptism to deliverance through water. He does so, however, by mentioning the flight of Jews through the Red Sea, and whom God preserved by a cloud in the wilderness,
“I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea…” [1 Cor. 10:1-2]
All of these Old Testament baptisms portrayed deliverance through faith, and they were experienced by young and old alike. They came through different means; some on top of water like Noah and others sprinkled like the Israelites. The important thing was that water brought judgment on God’s enemies but not those associated with faith.
Above all baptism symbolizes how Christ was submersed in judgment for His people, and that afterwards He was raised. Wrath was poured out like the Red Sea or the great flood, burying Him in punishment for our sins. For this reason, believers may be comforted by the picture of baptism in the same way Noah must have felt when he stepped off the ark into a fresh world. Believers are saved in the ark of Christ from the deep waters of death because He was swallowed for us, and raised up to deliver us! We may feel like the Israelites after they narrowly escaped from slavery into freedom. If seeing their enemies swallowed up caused them to sing, how much more should we! [Deut. 32:1-43]
BAPTISM: A PICTURE OF REGENERATION
Baptism also relates to regeneration, or new birth, as an analogy of how the Spirit creates this change of heart. Note the connection between regeneration and salvation in Titus 3:5-6, and how it is pictured in baptism.
“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
No one baptizes themselves. Christians are baptized in God’s name by someone else. The reason for this is new birth, which water baptism portrays, was not the result of our own efforts. We did not make our spiritual birth happen any more than our physical birth. The credit is all our fathers’. Even so, our heavenly Father pours out His Spirit to renew and wash us purely as an act of good will. Baptism teaches us that regeneration is the result of an amazing flood of spiritual power we neither earned nor sought. It teaches us to look to Christ and the Spirit, not to our decisions or even to water baptism itself!
BAPTISM: A CONTINUATION OF THE MEANING OF CIRCUMCISION
Finally, the New Testament teaches water baptism is the continuation of the outward sign given to Abraham, not something altogether different. Baptism is the new sign for the next historic phase of the same age-old faith. This is nowhere more clear than in Col. 2:11-12. Speaking to Gentiles, many who had likely never been physically circumcised, Paul wrote,
“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.”
Paul could not have known for certain whether all of these people had really been circumcised and baptized in their hearts; that is, whether they counted themselves dead to the curse of the Law through faith in Christ. But outwardly they were baptized and he treated them as having the genuine article. Furthermore, his point was to show that baptism and circumcision both point to union with Jesus which all believers experience through faith. So while we no longer practice outward circumcision, we experience it essentially in water baptism. It represents the same ultimate work of Christ to suffer death and judgment for us.
SPIRITUAL SIGNS TO CHILDREN: IT'S ABOUT ASSOCIATION
Now we come to the point. Why was Abraham commanded to give this sign to his infants? Why were believing people commanded to continue this practice, giving spiritual signs of righteousness through faith to babies who are too little to express personal faith? The reason is that while outward signs don’t save anyone, they do associate their recipients with the visible Church. They set the boundaries of who, without further information, we count among God’s people. Practically, this means from Abraham onward all who had the sign were considered part of the visible church, Abraham’s children. And unless they openly rejected Abraham’s faith, they were treated as real participants in faith.
Circumcision was performed on the eighth day after males were born. Even before receiving this outward sign, however, male infants were counted among God’s people for the simple fact that they were descended from the line of Abrahamic believers and thus recipients of the promises made to them, to be received through faith. The physical sign only further confirmed these promises, but was not essential to them before the appointed time. Likewise, females did not have to receive the physical sign to be counted among the people of God. It was enough for them to be born into families connected to Abraham’s faith, for, “I will be God to you and to your offspring,” applies as much to women as to male offspring.
This point is especially significant in our discussion of King David’s comfort. Though his son passed away before he was old enough to receive circumcision, David nevertheless counted him among God’s people. His son was a descendent of an Abrahamic believer. So even before circumcision David recognized the boy as an heir of the blessings which would have been physically sealed to him had he lived long enough.
COVENANT ASSOCIATION CONTINUES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
This practice of associating sons and daughters with the faith of their parents didn’t change in the New Testament. If anything it was solidified by the inclusion of women in the sign. Consider for a moment those Jews to whom Peter preached on Pentecost. [Acts 2] They weren’t raised in a Baptist church, but for two-thousand years had always given the spiritual sign of salvation through faith to their children. On this day when they came to believe Jesus was the Messiah, they didn’t join a new faith but realized the fulfillment of the old one! It was to these people that Peter said,
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
We know God calls unconverted adults through the ministry of preaching, but how does He call children into relationship with the visible Church? Consider the last phrase, “the promise is for you and for your children.” How would a believing Jew, an heir of Abraham’s faith, have understood those words. While knowing the outward sign of the faith was not enough and that salvation came through faith alone, he would understand how important it was to give that sign to his children. A new sign of the same faith would not change the practice to him—it would necessitate giving the sign anew to his children!
While the text doesn’t say the children of these men were baptized immediately, it doesn’t have to. This group was composed mostly of travelers visiting from many different nations for the feast. Their children were likely not with them. As it stands, believing Jews would have expected children to be included in the visible Church, while knowing faith in Messiah alone saves. So when they were told to publicly join themselves to the community of faith through baptism, they would have understood is as a promise to be set upon their children as well.
THE PURPOSE OF INCLUDING OUR CHILDREN IN THE VISIBLE CHURCH
This brings us to ask, if water baptism is a sign associates certain people with the visible church then why would God want to include children of professing Christians? The answer is that while baptism doesn’t guarantee a change in all children, it does effect how we relate to and teach our children. It allows us to treat them as disciples and not opponents of the faith. It helps us encourage and nurture their early professions, their “Jesus-loves-me” songs, rather than doubting. God wants us to associates our children with faith until we absolutely must think otherwise. By this means we are entitled to hope they are regenerate, even while praying God makes their profession very clear as soon as possible.
NO RIGHT TO THE OUTWARD SIGN, NO BASIS FOR HOPE IN THE INWARD REALITY
John Owen made a very astute point that where God gives the outward sign of faith we may hope for the inward reality of it. But where God forbids the outward sign we have no positive basis for hope. Allow me to draw a picture. Imagine a man approaches a pastor for baptism. As the two walk towards the water, a voice from heaven booms, “do not baptize him!” Would we, in that case, entertain high hopes the unbaptized man had the blessings signified by baptism if God would not even let him near the outward sign? Of course not.
Likewise, if God refused the outward sign of grace to our children, what must we fear if they died? We could only associate them with their natural sin. But because God incorporates them into the visible Church, we have nothing else to judge them by and can only expect the best. This raises the question of what happens to children of believers who die before baptism. Thankfully, because they were just as much entitled to it, comfort abounds to their grieving parents. Remember, this is not because baptism gives absolute certainty or works magically, but only because it serves as a token of grace including them in the visible Church. Without anything else to go by, their baptism affords us no reason to doubt God’s merciful election. For King David, this was enough.
SOME CHILDREN MAY NOT BE REGENERATE, OR EVEN ELECT
Those who misunderstand baptism may argue that because some children might not be regenerate, none should receive the sign of regeneration. Well, the fact is that some adults may not be regenerate either but we baptize them in good faith on the basis of their words. If having only a sinner’s testimony to go on, we will include them in the visible Church, how much more with God’s testimony should we include infant baptism. In Matthew’s gospel, some believers came to Jesus begged him for His blessing over their little one. The disciples were indignant but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” [Matt. 19:14] It was as though he said to these faith-filled parents, “bring them to my feet as soon as possible so that I might bless them.”
True, some children may not be regenerate, but they also might. John the baptist was Spirit-filled while in the womb. [Luke 1:41-44] King David thanked God for his infantile faith, saying, “You are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” [Psm 22:9-10] We see children can indeed be regenerated from an extreme young age. Who then would risk withholding from one the outward symbols meant to encourage and direct his faith?
Baptism is not about human insight or works. It is not about the intensity of one’s profession of faith and repentance, but is ultimately about how God associates certain people with the Faith. Just as in the days of circumcision, adult converts are joined to the visible Church at the time of conversion, whereas children become members at the time of birth into a professing home. This is why whole households were baptized throughout Acts, and why Paul addresses children of believers as recipients of God’s promises to the Church. [Eph 6:1] So whether baptism comes before or after the inward work, what matters is God’s choice to extend the outward symbol from a young age to whom He will.
WHAT ABOUT CHILDREN WHO LATER APOSTATIZE?
Some worry about what baptism means for children who abandon the faith. Does apostasy disprove God’s promises made to us in baptism? Does violating one’s external relationship to God’s Covenant people disrupt and freeness of the New Covenant? By no means. These people should consider that many baptized adults also forsake the outward Church, but this does not discredit God’s promises which are received through faith. Forsaking outward signs does not alter the fact God preserves true believers in faith and repentance. Apostasy does not change the number of the elect. Some are like Esau, receiving the sign of Abraham’s righteousness but not the faith of it. Others are like Isaac and Jacob, growing up to serve the God of their fathers. All have the sign.
Our concerns about sincerity should not cause us to withhold blessings from whomever God chooses to grant them. Moses withheld the sign of Abraham’s faith from his child and was severely chastened for it. [Exodus 4:24-25] Peter said of Cornelius’ family, “who can prevent these from being baptized?” [Acts 10:47] The faith of a father or mother is sufficient to include children in the visible Church.
FINDING COMFORT THROUGH BAPTISM
The comfort of infant baptism comes in the objectivity of it. According to human wisdom, we could never be sure if God has been gracious to save our children. We can’t peer into their hearts to see whether they are converted. So as a blessing and comfort, God has mercifully granted us the benefit of the doubt. He wants us to include them in the visible church until they are old enough to make public professions of faith. Whether or not they are true believers is God’s business. Ours is to train them up in godliness. And of course, part of raising them in godliness is always teaching them that faith in Christ—and not water baptism—is the instrument of salvation.
The Old Testament instructed parents to teach their children through pictures like Passover. It must have been exciting for little ones to set up tents and let animals into their homes, all for the purpose of communicating the faith to them. Even so, I look forward to the day when I might explain to my children the significance of their baptism. I will say, “my dear child, God wanted you to be washed with water on the outside so that you would know how willing He is to cleanse the hearts of all who trust Jesus. So have faith in Christ and you can trust you are clean inside and out, purely of His grace.”
Baptism offers significant comfort to grieving parents, I think, not because it has efficacious virtue in itself—it doesn’t—but because the water, which typifies Christ’s suffering and victory on behalf of His people, as well as the application of these gifts by His Spirit, is intended for our children, too. This generous, automatic inclusion into the visible community of saints is not given by God to ones born outside of the visible line of faith. But those born of believers are heirs of the promises made to Abraham, that “I will be a God to you and your offspring… for an everlasting covenant.”
CONCLUSION: INFANT BAPTISM IS A BLESSING
What I have learned is that God would not have us separating wheat from chaff before it is time. When they grow up it is easier to tell what is what. We should not deprive our children from the many blessings of outward membership in the Covenant community. Early baptism is a meaningful symbol pointing children to God’s promise to cleanse even miserable, wretched people—ones who contribute no more to their salvation than little babies do to their bath. Baptism rightly communicated teaches children that cleansing comes to us when we are as helpless, and that through faith in Christ alone we are counting us as dear sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.
Lord grant you wisdom to see the continuity of Abraham’s faith, and to realize that we Gentiles were grafted in, not out, of its practice.
If you have further questions please feel free to contact myself or my experienced pastor, Rev. Daniel R. Hyde.