Brothers, Magnify the Meaning of Baptism

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Founder & Teacher,

I recall a beautiful day in 1973. Prof. Leonhard Goppelt had invited his university seminar on baptism to a retreat south of Munich in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. He was Lutheran and I was the lone American - and a Baptist. We met in a monastery and for several hours debated the issue of infant baptism vs. believer baptism. It was a two-man show: sort of a David and Goliath affair. Only there were no Baptist Israelites cheering me on. Nor did Professor Goppelt fall. But to this day I believe the flight of my stones was true and that only the impervious power of a 17-century tradition protected the bastion of pedobaptism.

But now I have come to see that the "battle of Bavaria" was fought at the wrong level. Since coming to Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, I have taught about ten four-week membership classes. Almost every time, there have been Lutherans or Catholics or Presbyterians or Covenanters or the like who were "baptized" as infants but want to join our church. Month by month my understanding of why I accept believer baptism has increased. And now I see that I never got to the root in Bavaria.

Here's the way my thought has progressed. There have been three stages (not unlike childhood, adolescence and maturity).

Stage 1: The Recipients of Baptism

First I saw that every baptism recorded in the Bible was the baptism of an adult who had professed faith in Christ. Nowhere in Scripture is there any instance of an infant being baptized. The "household baptisms" (mentioned in Acts 16:15, 33 and 1 Corinthians 1:16 are exceptions to this only if one assumes that the "household" included infants. But, in fact, Luke steers us away from this assumption in Acts16:32 by saying that Paul first "spoke the word of the Lord. . .to all that were in his [the jailer's] house," and then baptized them.

Besides the absence of infant baptism in Scripture, I also notice (as every Baptist schoolboy knows) that the order of Peter's command was "Repent, and be baptized" (Acts 2:38). I saw no reason ever to reverse the order.

But I gradually came to see that these observations were only suggestive, not compelling. That no infant baptisms are recorded does not prove there weren't any. And that Peter said, "Repent, and be baptized," to an adult audience does not rule out the possibility of his saying something different about infants. So I grew up to my second stage and decided, "I had better turn away from the examples of baptism to the teaching about baptism." Perhaps the meaning of Luke's narrative would be clarified by the exposition of Paul and Peter.

Stage 2: The Meaning of Baptism

Of course Romans 6:1-11 came to mind. But this was Professor Goppelt's favorite weapon, because it contains not a word about faith or about any conscious response to God until verse 11; and there the response came after baptism. So he uses Roman 6 as the classic defense of infant baptism. To me it goes either way in isolation.

But Colossians 2:12 and 1 Peter 3:21 seemed to me to be devastating to the pedobaptist viewpoint. Paul compares baptism with circumcision and says, "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." This says clearly: in baptism we are raised through faith. Baptism is effectual as an expression of faith. I did not see how an infant could properly accept this sign of faith.

Then 1 Peter 3:21 said, "Baptism. . . saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." This text frightens many Baptists away because it seems to come close to the Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican notion that the rite in and of itself saves. But in fleeing from this text we throw away a powerful argument for believer baptism. For as J.D.G. Dunn says, this is the closest thing we have to a definition which includes faith. Baptism is "an appeal to God." That is, baptism is the cry of faith to God. In that sense and to that degree, it is part of God's means of salvation. This should not scare us off any more than the sentence, "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord. . . you will be saved." The movement of the lips in the air and the movement of the body in water save only in the sense that they express the appeal and faith of the heart toward God.

So it seemed to me that Colossians 2:12 and 1 Peter 3:21 sewed up the case against baptizing infants who could not yet believe in Christ or appeal to God.

But that is where my Bavarian battle stopped. Since then I have been shown by a long succession of arguments in my membership classes that even these texts leave open the [remote!] possibility that an infant can be baptized on the strength of its parents' faith and in hope of its own eventual "confirmation." It is just as possible that these passages have relevance only for the missionary setting where adults are being converted and baptized. If Paul and Peter had addressed the issue of new infants in Christian homes, maybe they would have come off as good Presbyterians.

Stage 3: The Discontinuity of Baptism

I doubt it. For there is now a third stage of reasoning in favor of believer baptism. There is a grand biblical and Baptist response to the Heidelberg Catechism, which says that infants of Christian parents "belong to the covenant and people of God . . . they also are to be baptized as a sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament baptism is appointed." In other words, the justification of infant baptism in the Reformed churches hangs on the fact that baptism is the New Testament counterpart of circumcision.

There is in fact an important continuity between the signs of circumcision and baptism, but the Presbyterian representatives of Reformed theology have undervalued the discontinuity. This is the root difference between Baptists and Presbyterians on baptism. I am a Baptist because I believe that on this score we honor both the continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church and between their respective covenant signs.

The continuity is expressed like this: Just as circumcision was administered to all the physical sons of Abraham who made up the physical Israel, so baptism should be administered to all the spiritual sons of Abraham who make up the spiritual Israel, the church. But who are these spiritual sons of Abraham who constitute the people of God in our age?

Galatians 3:7 says, "So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham." The new thing, since Jesus has come, is that the covenant people of God are no longer a political, ethnic nation, but a body of believers.

Why the Inauguration of the New Covenant Matters

John the Baptist inaugurated this change and introduced the new sign of baptism. By calling all Jews to repent and be baptized, John declared powerfully and offensively that physical descent does not make one part of God's family and that circumcision, which signifies a physical relationship, will now be replaced by baptism, which signifies a spiritual relationship. The apostle Paul picks up this new emphasis, especially in Romans 9, and says, "Not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants. . . it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God" (vs. 7-8).

Therefore a very important change has occurred in redemptive history. There is discontinuity as well as continuity.

Zwingli and Calvin and their heirs have treated signs of the covenant as if no significant changes happened with the coming of Christ. But God is forming His people today differently than when He strove with an ethnic people called Israel. The people of God are no longer formed through natural kinship, but through supernatural conversion to faith in Christ.

With the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus and the apostles, the emphasis now is that the spiritual status of your parents does not determine your membership in the covenant community. The beneficiaries of the blessings of Abraham are those who have the faith of Abraham. These are the ones who belong to the covenant community.

And these are the ones who should receive the sign of the covenant: believer baptism. So if I could go back and do Bavaria again, I would get to the root in a hurry. This is where our "defense and confirmation" will be won or lost. But the Lord brings us through childhood, adolescence and maturity for a reason. Every stage of reasoning is useful. Know your audience, brothers, and magnify the meaning of baptism.