For most of my believing life I believed baptism was only for believers – those who could give credible confession of their faith in Christ alone as their Lord and Savior. If you were baptized as an infant you needed to be baptized, not again, since your first baptism wasn’t a real baptism, but for the first time and with a testimony of how you have now decided to place your trust in Christ for your salvation.
I now believe baptism is for everyone – for adults and children, infants and the mentally disabled (who may not be able to understand or communicate a faith in Christ.) The Bible says a lot about baptism, far more than many realize. It’s a big deal. But your view of baptism is usually driven by your view of the gospel, sin nature, and how forgiveness is received.
One way to get at your view of baptism is to ask, “What happens in baptism?” I used to believe not much happens:
You get wet
You raise your Christian flag – you publicly identify yourself as a Christian
In some cases, you identify yourself with a church
You give public testimony to your faith in Christ
In this view, baptism is important, but for a new believer not more important than reading your Bible, finding a church, joining a small group, and meeting with someone for ‘follow up’. Baptism can be scheduled for a later time. This makes sense because nothing really happens in baptism. Baptism is a sign of something that has already happened (you’ve become a Christian).
In this view, you are the primary actor: you decide, identify, testify, and announce your faith in Christ.
I now believe everything happens in baptism:
God calls you by name – baptism is for you in particular.
God claims you as His own. You are made a child of God.
God delivers to you the forgiveness of sins that Jesus won at the cross.
God unites you to Christ.
God puts to death (drowns) your old sinful nature and raises you up to new life in Christ.
God gives you the Holy Spirit to strengthen you in faith and empower you for service.
In this view, baptism is of utmost importance. Baptism is the means by which God delivers His gifts to you. As such, when someone turns to Christ in the New Testament, they are immediately baptized (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:12; 16:31-33; 18:8).
In this view, God is the primary actor: calling, claiming, delivering, putting to death, raising up, and giving. This the gospel of grace: God gives you what you don’t deserve, God gives you what you cannot get on your own. Some key texts: Romans 6:1-11; Ephesians 5:25-27; Titus 3:4-7; I Peter 3:21.
If man is the primary actor in his salvation, it makes sense to withhold baptism until he has the mental capabilities of understanding the gospel and making a decision to trust the gospel. If God is the primary actor, then it makes sense that a baby can receive all the benefits of salvation, because they are not dependent on the baby understanding and deciding, but on God delivering and acting.
Those who do not believe in infant baptism believe that all that I listed – being forgiven, united with Christ, etc. takes place, but it takes place before baptism based upon an inner faith that might be expressed in praying a prayer or walking the aisle, etc. I don’t disagree that this happens, but you will be hard pressed to find New Testament support for this being the way God has promised to work. God repeatedly attaches his promises to baptism.
I don’t believe baptism operates apart from God’s Word. It’s God’s Word combined with the waters of baptism that accomplishes such great work. Water without the Word is just plain water. Water with the Word delivers forgiveness and new life. God’s work isn’t limited to baptism, but it’s one place He has assured us He will work.
Matthew 28:19-20 is helpful in seeing the role of baptism.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Some take this verse as evidence that baptism is only for those who can express their faith. They say, “First we go and make disciples (converts) then we baptize (as a sign they have identified themselves with Christ), and then we teach them to live as disciples.” In this interpretation, the sentence has four sequential commands: 1) Go, 2) Make disciples, 3) Baptize, and 4) Teach.
This view is not supported by the grammar. The grammar indicates one command with three participles explaining how we are to carry out the command. So you have make disciples by going, baptizing, and teaching. Notice baptism precedes teaching. The way we make a disciple (convert is not a good interpretation of ‘make disciples’ but that’s for another day) is by baptizing and teaching. I certainly allow for faith coming through the Word and converting an adult who would then be baptized. But I also would allow for an infant to first be baptized and then taught. These verses offer baptism to all.
Your view of original sin and faith will also shape your view of baptism. I’ll tackle those issues in another post. For now I rest in the assurance that in my baptism the Lord has called my by name and made me His own apart from anything I have done.