WP 111: So What's the Big Deal About Baptism?


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So What's the Big Deal About Baptism?

All Christians throughout history have agreed, on the basis of Scripture, that baptism is important. Historically, baptism has not been understood to be an optional practice. It is commanded by God. But there has often been disagreement about whom baptism is for, how it should be done, and why it is significant.

The issue most debated is whether baptism should be performed on children of believing parents or only on people who have made their own decision to believe in and follow Jesus.

Infant Baptism: Covenanting with the Community of God

Biblical Argument

Scripture’s support for infant baptism falls under three motifs:

1. children and the covenant,

2. household baptisms

3. baptism as New Testament circumcision.

Children were included in the old testament covenant.

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” Gen. 17:7

“There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the aliens who resided among them” Josh. 8:35

New Testament

Jesus says - ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them” (Mark 10:14–16).

Peter - “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” Acts 2:38–39

(Children are participants of the covenant of God and thus may receive the Holy Spirit when their parents enter into the covenant with God. The way this covenant is sealed in the New Testament is through baptism.)

Household baptisms:

Cornelius - The angel said, he will “give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved” (Acts 11:13–14).

Lydia - “She and her household were baptized” (Acts 16:14)

Paul’s jailer - “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” “and his entire family were baptized without delay” (Acts 16:31, 33).

Paul - “For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Cor. 7:14).

Stresses familial identity. Children are made holy by the faith of their parents, though the notion runs counter to the Western individualistic worldview. It is also why children are consistently included in their parents’ covenant and why the church should baptize children of believing parents. Entering the covenant of God is not simply an individual affair. Indeed, as in the Old Testament, children are included within their parents’ covenant.

Paul draws in analogy between circumcision and baptism.

“In him [Christ] also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:11–12).

(The idea here being since physical circumcision was offered to infants and adults alike, baptism is the new circumcision for infants and adults alike.)


1. Church tradition. From at least the second century, infant baptism has been practiced by the majority of Christians throughout history.

Objection: Bible contains no explicit reference to infant baptism. If we believe that scripture is more authoritative than tradition this must be a major consideration.

2. God’s initiative in salvation. When people restrict baptism to adults, they give the impression that salvation is a matter of God responding to human choice.

Objection: Scripture gives faith as a prerequisite to baptism. “Repent, and be baptized” Acts 2:38. Jesus says, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near.” Matthew 3:2.

Can an infant repent? Also, see the great commission.

Believers Baptism

Biblical Argument

Throughout the New Testament, salvation is offered to and baptism is commanded of only people who can meet the conditions of repenting, repenting, believing, and obeying Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist - “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him [John] and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” Mark 1:5. The ones who were baptized were the ones who confessed their sins. Infants, of course, cannot do this. Hence, there is no reason to suppose that infants were among those whom John baptized.

Jesus - Jesus himself was baptized as an adult says, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). Baptism was intended to be part of the process of making someone a disciple and makes sense only in the context of disciple-making. It was not intended for people too young to be taught and to decide whether they wanted to obey all that Jesus commanded.

The Samaritans “believed Philip” as he preached the good news that “they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12).

It was only after the Ethiopian eunuch embraced the good news about Jesus that he was baptized (Acts 8:35–38).

Romans 6:3 “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

"5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.”

Can an infant have its old self crucified so it is no longer a slave to sin?

1. Baptism is an act of discipleship that can be entered into only by people old enough to be disciples. This is why every example of baptism in the New Testament involves a person old enough to decide to follow Christ. Never do we read about infants being baptized.

2. The importance of discipleship - If someone is considered a Christian by virtue of being born to Christian parents (or in a Christian state), then the urgency of stepping out on one’s own and making the radical decision to follow Jesus is compromised. This is not to suggest that all Christians baptized as infants are passionless or that the practice of infant baptism causes one to be passionless. But this practice invariably tends in that direction, and for obvious reasons. By contrast, the practice of adult baptism forces each individual to make his or her own decision to follow Christ.

Summary: While it is true that the infant baptism view has been the primary perspective throughout church history, it is also true that there is no explicit evidence of infant baptism until the second century and no evidence that it was dominant until much later. This is plenty of time for an aberration of Christian practice and theology to take place. Indeed, most evangelicals would agree that the dominant theology of baptism was becoming aberrant by the mid-second century, because Christians at this time were increasingly holding that baptism literally washed away sin and was necessary for salvation, a view almost all evangelicals reject.

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