The Baptism Debate

Introduction

All that should matter in this life is the fact Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of the world. Sadly enough for some church goers it is not. They would much rather spend their time arguing over what can be called second tier issues. What issues do you allow to rule your experience with the church or most importantly with Christ? Take baptism for example, in your church there is probably a particular standard that is adhered to and by you being a member you support it. But would you condemn a fellow Christian who attends a different church because they practice differently? When it comes to the controversy surrounding baptism D.M. Lloyd Jones wisely says, “Is it not perfectly obvious, before we go any further, that this subject cannot be finally decided, that it is not one of those subjects concerning which you can give an absolute and unmistakable proof? If it could, there would never have been all this controversy and there would not have been denominational distinctions.”[1]

With all of that being said we must still take the time to investigate for ourselves and come to our own conclusion of what Scripture is telling us, without blindly following our denominational history. Throughout this essay there will be comparisons and contrast drawn between different views regarding the purpose and merits of baptism, who should receive baptism, and the different modes of baptism. Personally this essay has been a challenge for me, as a member of a PCA church. In the end hopefully a biblical and well balanced understanding of baptism has been presented. If a random person were to walk up to you and ask, “Why were you baptized?” and then followed it with “Is there any benefits to it?” how would you respond?

The Purpose and Merits of Baptism

In helping us to understand what the purpose is we will first take a look at what it is not. Nettles says, “The first caricature sees baptism as nothing more than a personal insurance policy that the one baptized will go to heaven; the second reduces baptism to receiving a name or to getting into the membership of a particular church within a certain cultural expression.”[2] Now that we have established what baptism’s purpose is not, we must examine what it is. According to the Baptist view, baptism is a symbol of Christ saving work. There are those who will argue that baptism is merely a symbol and holds little to no spiritual significance, while others believe we become regenerated through our baptism, and another sees it a mysterious encounter with God.

Nettles argues, “Baptism represents the confident reliance on the judgment that Christ took for us, which judgment becomes our salvation. Baptism itself does not remove the damnable filth but expresses one’s confidence that only the propitiatory death of Christ saves.[3] It can also be stated that the Baptist view, points to baptism symbolizing a person’s acceptance into a congregation. Castelein in Understanding Four View on Baptism rebuttals this argument with, “One important truth needs to be added: the church (both in its universal essence and local expressions) is the body of Christ. The Scriptures do not warrant separating incorporation into Christ by faith from a later incorporation into a local church by baptism.”[4]

The Roman Catholic Church continues to teach that upon baptism man then begins the process of regeneration, making it a necessary act to receive salvation. Lloyd Jones expresses that, “No sacrament is essential to salvation: if you say it is, you are aligning yourself with the Roman Catholics. Protestants have always said that while baptism and the Lord’s Supper are commands of the Lord, and we should therefore practice them, they are not essential. They do not add grace, they simply point to it and bring it to us in a special way.”[5]

That special way would fall into the Reformed view, because “…Reformed theology views baptism as a mysterious encounter with God that takes place through a rite involving physical elements and special ceremony. Through this encounter, God graciously distributes blessings to those who participate by faith and also judgment to those who participate without faith.”[6] It is usually argued that the Reformed view believes that baptism is sacramental and covenantal. This response in the end comes across rather ambiguous and very confusing. When reading on the Reformed understanding of baptism, one cannot help but notice that there is a heavy reliance on creeds and confessions.

One of the best summations I have heard about baptism comes from,. J. I. Packer, who believes,

“Baptism carries these meanings because first and fundamentally it signifies union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-7; Col. 2:11-12); and this union with Christ is the source of every element in our salvation (1 John 5:11-12). Receiving the sign in faith assures the persons baptized that God’s gift of new life in Christ is freely given to them. At the same time, it commits them to live henceforth in a new way as committed disciples of Jesus.”[7]

After hearing all of these different views my understanding is our baptism signifies our union with Christ, while telling others we have come to trust the Lord for our eternal salvation, and it’s a promise of assurance of our justification.

Who Should Be Baptized?

This is a question that has caused heated debate, and it would seem that the New Testament points more in favor to a believer’s baptism over the padeo-baptism argument. When we scour the New Testament we can find no direct place where we are told to baptize infants. Elwell supports this by saying, “To be sure, there is no direct prohibition of infant baptism in the NT. But in the absence of the direction either way it is surely better to carry out the sacrament or ordinance as obviously commanded and practiced than to rely on exegetical or theological inference for a different administration.”[8]

Often times supporters of infant baptism will choose to cite Acts 2:39 to support their view of the covenant extending to their physical family. Again Lloyd Jones notices that,

“Clearly, by ‘children’ Peter does not mean physical descendants, he does not mean the children of those listening but, in effect: ‘The promise is not only for you who are immediately here, now, but is for the next generation and the generation after that and after that and it will continue down the running centuries. And it is not only for Jews but also for those who are afar off’—the Gentiles, those who are outside the commonwealth of Israel. Indeed, it is for ‘as many as the Lord our God shall call’.”[9]

After defining what is to be the purpose of baptism and its meaning, the case for infant baptism seems that much weaker; because when we view the majority of accounted for baptisms in the New Testament we can see that they follow a very specific pattern of preaching, repentance, and then baptism. “Accordingly, the only appropriate candidate for the witness of baptism is someone who has something about which he can bear witness (Acts 2:38; 8:12–13, 36–38; Eph. 4:5).”[10] It has been argued that to baptize babies into faith is dangerous because if they grow up and leave the faith it brings condemnation on them.[11] In regards to this argument Lloyd Jones answers with,

“Similarly, people often say something like this: ‘Look at the thousands of children who were baptized when they were infants. p 43 They were accepted into the Christian Church but subsequently they lapsed, proving that they were never really Christians at all.’ The answer again, of course, is exactly the same. That has happened, alas, thousands of times with people who were baptized on confession of faith when they were adults. We must be very careful as we handle these arguments because the same point can be raised on both sides. We must not base our arguments on observations but, as we have been trying to do, on the Scriptures.”[12]

Proponents of infant baptism will cite the fact that circumcision is for all of God’s people in the Old Testament, and baptism is the correlating sign for the New Testament. One thing that they tend to neglect is that the idea of the mark of the covenant has gone from being physical to spiritual. One key text that padeo-baptist tend to rely on for their circumcision/baptism argument is Colossians 2:11-12. Salter says of this text that, “…baptism and spiritual circumcision are connected with spiritual cleansing and new life. In this respect they are unlike physical circumcision, which is sharply distinguished from spiritual circumcision and its concomitant realities. Paedobaptists have blurred the distinction between the physical and spiritual that Paul sees so clearly.”[13] Supporters of infant baptism also choose to cite references in the Book of Acts 16:15 and 33 in attempts to say that when it mentions whole households that it includes infants also. We have no way of knowing for sure who was in the household so this is a case of speculation.

There are also attempts to say that the holiness of the parents can be passed on to the children as long as their parents are believers based upon 1 Corinthians 7:14. Two very theologically sound men J. I. Packer and D. M. Lloyd Jones have very different views about the meaning of this verse in particular. Packer contests that, “…one partner has become a Christian by invoking the certainty that the children of such a marriage are relationally and covenantally “holy,” that is, are dedicated to and accepted by God in company with their one Christian parent. So the principle of parent-and-child solidarity still stands, as Peter also indicated in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:39).” [14] In regards to Packers assertion we have already mentioned Lloyd Jones view of Acts 2:39, so there is no need to repeat it here.

In the end there is no empirical evidence that tells us to baptize infants while we were given the specific command of the Lord to make disciples and baptize them (Matt 28:19-20). So that leaves me agreeing with Boyd & Eddy, when they say, “Without exception, baptism follows faith and constitutes the first act of discipleship made by a responsible person who has decided to follow Jesus.”[15]

The Mode of Baptism

The mode of baptism has become a topic of great debate over the last several hundred years. While it is argued that the word “…baptiziō its cognates often refer to immersing or dipping, these terms are also used to describe washing and cleansing.”[16] While conversely the Holman Bible Illustrated Dictionary says,

“But overwhelmingly the most prominent use of the word refers to the first response of obedience by a new follower of Jesus. The word “baptize” is itself a loanword borrowed from the Greek term baptizo. Few scholars contest that the meaning of the term is “immerse,” and not “to pour” or “to sprinkle.” In classical Greek, the word is used, for example, to describe the sinking of a ship that is, therefore, “immersed” or totally enveloped in water.”[17]

According to Packer, “No prescription of a particular mode of baptism can be found in the New Testament. The command to baptize may be fulfilled by immersion, dipping, or sprinkling; all three modes satisfy the meaning of the Greek verb baptizo and the symbolic requirement of passing under, and emerging from, cleansing water.”[18] What is to be found more interesting are the multiple ways the word baptizō can be understood. Lloyd Jones gives us a great example with these words,

“If you read Luke 11:37–38 you will find this: ‘And as he spake, a certain Pharisee besought him to dine with him: and he went in, and sat down to meat. And when the Pharisee saw it, he marvelled that he had not first washed before dinner.’ The word used there is baptizō and clearly it does not mean that they were surprised that he did not go and have a complete bath. No, it was the custom of the Pharisees, before they sat down to eat, to hold their hands under running water. They thought it was essential and were surprised that our Lord, instead of holding His hands under running water, immediately sat down. So there is the suggestion of sprinkling.[19]

It has also been alluded to, that Old Testament cleansings can relate to baptism. If that is the case when we understand those cleansings we know that they very rarely involved full immersions but sprinklings. When the priest would make offering on the altar he would sprinkle the corners of the altar. “In the Old Testament things were set apart, purified, consecrated and sanctified by sprinkling. The horns of the altar were sprinkled with blood, and blood was sprinkled in front of the curtain of the Holy Place (Lev. 4).”[20]

With all things being considered both forms of baptism should be acceptable, because when we understand, “In Romans 6, Paul refers to burial to show the absolute character of death.”[21]

Conclusion

This essay has attempted to prove the purpose of baptism, by showing our union with the Lord Jesus Christ, and that it should be only for adult believers who are able to make a conscious decision to do so. While I believe that both modes of baptism are acceptable it should be the heart of the person receiving baptism that is more important than the means in which it is received. Baptism while not being essential to our salvation is vital to our relationship with the Lord because he told his disciples, ““If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15 ESV)

Bibliography

Boyd, Gregory A., and Paul R. Eddy. Across the Spectrum. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Cross, F. L. and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. rev. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Elwell, Water A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids,MI: BakerAcademic, 2001.

Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Edited by Brand, Chad, Charles Draper, Archie England et al. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.

Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn. The Church and the Last Things. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1998.

Lutzer, Erwin. The Doctrines That Divide. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1998.

Nettles, Thomas J., et al. Understanding Four Views on Baptism. Edited by John H. Armstrong. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

Packer, J. I. Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993.

Salter, Martin. “Does Baptism Replace Circumcision? An Examination of the Relationship Between Circumcision and Baptism in Colossians 2:11–12”. In Themelios: Volume 35, No. 1, April 2010. United Kingdom: The Gospel Coalition, 2010.

Schaff, Philip and David Schley Schaff. History of the Christian Church. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.

Strawbridge, Gregg ed. The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2003.


[1] David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1998), 35.

[2] Nettles, Thomas J., et al. Understanding Four Views on Baptism. Edited by John H. Armstrong. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) 20.

[3] Ibid,38.

[4] Ibid, 51.

[5] Lloyd-Jones, The Church, 36.

[6] Nettles, Understanding, 59.

[7] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology : A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1995).

[8] Water A.Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. (Grand Rapids,MI: BakerAcademic, 2001)131.

[9] Lloyd-Jones, The Church, 40.

[10] Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 168.

[11] Elwell, Dictionary,134.

[12] Lloyd-Jones, The Church, 42-43.

[13] Martin Salter, “Does Baptism Replace Circumcision? An Examination of the Relationship Between Circumcision and Baptism in Colossians 2:11–12” In , in Themelios: Volume 35, No. 1, April 2010 (United Kingdom: The Gospel Coalition, 2010), 29.

[14] Packer, Concise,

[15]Gregory A. Boyd, and Paul R. Eddy. Across the Spectrum. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002)218.

[16] Gregg Strawbridge, ed. The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism. Phillipsburg: (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2003)115.

[17] Brand , Holman, 167-68.

[18] Packer, Concise.

[19] Lloyd-Jones, The Church, 44.

[20]Ibid, 45.

[21] Strawbridge, The Case, 116.

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