Friday, August 24, 2007

Baptism

Christian bloggers everywhere are piling in to a big discussion about baptism at the moment. (See Adrian Warnock's blog if you need to catch up on this!) How could I not join in?

Obviously, baptism, and particularly the question of whom to baptise, has been debated for ages. Those who know me will know that I am somewhat in favour of believers' baptism, and somewhat opposed to infant baptism. Those who know me well will know that this is putting it mildly. But the debate at the moment revolves around something different: should those who believe in baptism for believers only join in communion with those who were baptised as infants? Should a credobaptist church require credobaptism as a condition of membership?

I actually think that this apparently minor issue could help us to get to the heart of the larger issue (paedo or credo), because it has to do with what baptism is.

I think most credobaptists see baptism as a believer's response to a salvation already received by faith. It is therefore a work, and belongs in the traditional ordo salutis within the realm of sanctification. Hence for Grudem, the effects of baptism are "the blessing of God's favour that comes with all obedience, as well as the joy that comes through public profession of one's faith, and the reassurance of having a clear physical picture of dying and rising with Christ and of washing away sins". What does baptism do? More or less the same as any obedience to Christ, with a little extra symbolism thrown in.

I'm not sure that measures up to the New Testament. Here are a few things I'd want considered:

How do you become a disciple? "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19).

What do unconverted sinners need to do when convicted of their sin? "Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38)

How are people forgiven of sin? "Repent and be baptised...for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38)

How do we participate in Christ's death and come to benefit from it? "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death..." (Romans 8:3-4)

How are we saved? "Baptism... now saves you" (1 Peter 3:21)

Obviously, look up the references and check I'm not ripping them mercilessly out of context!

So, what is baptism? If baptism does all the things above, how are we to hold that we are saved by faith alone?

The answer, I think, is simply this: baptism is a promise, given by God, and therefore we are saved by exercising faith in that promise. Baptism is the offer of forgiveness. So we cannot ask "should baptism come before or after believing?" Baptism is believing! Or at least, baptism is the offering of a promise, effective if met bu faith in the person being baptised. That is why I am a credobaptist, incidentally. I don't believe that baptism is the first step of obedience after faith; I believe that baptism is, or should be, the first step of faith.

So what about communion with people who were baptised as infants? What about rebaptising them? Well, if they are believing the promise of baptism, then I would receive them as baptised. I would not rebaptise them - indeed, the very idea of rebaptising makes me feel a little ill. If, on the other hand, they found that they could not trust the promise of their baptism because of doubts about its validity, I might counsel them to receive a (first) baptism they could believe in - and to regard the former ceremony as empty and no baptism at all.

Baptism is the appointed means of entering the church by faith. Baptism saves us through our faith in Christ. It is not empty symbolism or magic ritual. It is the church's gift, the gift she received from the Lord and offers to all who will take it in faith.

I believe in it.

7 comments:

  1. Daniel Newman2:17 pm

    It doesn't seem terribly consistent to me to say, on the one hand, that baptism is a promise in response to which we must exercise faith, and then to insist that baptism is the first step of faith. Is baptism a promise, or is it an exercise on our part?

    Surely baptism, like the preached word of the gospel, must come first; it is then in response to this promise that God makes that we respond with faith.

    Am I the only person reading this excellent 'blog?

    (It would be great to meet up and talk in person sometime, if you're free.)

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  2. I think what I am trying to say is that in baptism a promise is offered, and that by undergoing baptism (assuming it isn't done out of superstition of any other false motive) a person exercises faith in that promise. I am essentially wanting to argue against anything that separates faith and baptism in time or concept. I think the NT mandates this by sometimes speaking of repentance and faith, and sometimes of repentance and baptism. This does of course raise the question of Salvationists, or other believers not baptised for other reasons. I need to think about that one.

    Looks like you are my sole audience! Still worth writing...

    Vis a vis meeting up, do drop me a message via the book of faces!

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  3. Sorry Daniel N, you're not the only person reading. I agree that it's excellent. Daniel B - this is a really compelling argument. I think you may have changed my (not very decided in the first place) mind...

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  4. Infant-baptist Daniel2:05 pm

    I don't find this compelling at all.

    I do agree that for those who have not been baptised as infants, baptism should be the first exercise of faith in God's promise. I don't think it's at all acceptable for someone to be a Christian and remain unbaptised, even when they start exercising pastoral roles in the church, which I have known.

    Yes, in baptism a promise is offered, but undergoing baptism as a believer is a response of faith to the promises of God in the preached word. Undergoing baptism cannot be a response of faith to the promises of baptism because God isn't promising anything to you through your baptism until you are baptised.

    Again, it seems to me that the promissory nature of baptism is most in keeping with its administration to the infants of believers. That the NT sometimes speaks of baptism and faith and sometimes of baptism and repentance does not need to contradict this - those NT references are addressed to first-generation hearers of the gospel as it finds its fulfilment in Christ and for them it is right that faith and baptism are not separated. With regard to children, we must look elsewhere in Scripture to what it says about the households of believers. And even then, baptism needn't be separated from faith - as with the case of the writer of Psalms 22 and 71, trust in the Lord can be present from the earliest days, and like other personal qualities, mature as the child grows up.

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  5. I detect a serious problem here, something which I find in the theology of many paedobaptists - namely, baptism seems to mean two different things dependent on whether it is administered to adults or infants. If "the promissory nature of baptism is most in keeping with its administration to the infants of believers", what is going on when we baptise adult converts? I think this is all a bit of a muddle.

    When it comes to thinking about the promissory nature of baptism, I think we are talking about different things. I am not wanting to separate the preached word (of the gospel) and the enacted word (of baptism) as you seem to. I am suggesting that the gospel makes an offer, and coming to baptism in faith is the accepting of that offer. So, I see the promise of the gospel (i.e. something like "if you repent and believe, you will be saved") to be identical to the promise of baptism. But to go through baptism is to make that promise mine.

    You seem to suppose a promise offered in baptism independent of the promise offered in the gospel. I cannot see what this is, and it is one of my great gripes with infant baptist theology that it encourages people to trust a promise that I don't think exists!

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  6. Daniel Newman6:15 pm

    Perhaps my comment was unclear. I agree that the promises of baptism are the gospel promises. God is promising the same thing to the infant of the believer as to the adult convert when they are baptised. Baptism means the same thing, whether one is the infant of a believer or an adult convert.

    Where I want to distinguish is the mode by which the promise comes - to the infant, it is through baptism and subsequent instruction to which, we pray, they grow up trusting; to the convert, it is through instruction first, and is it not the case that the faith they exercise (through baptism) is exercised in the promise given through the means of preaching. For the convert, the promise of baptism is subsequent to that (but again, we pray that the recipient grows in trust in response to the promise).

    Perhaps it was therefore inaccurate to say that the promissory nature of baptism was most in keeping with infant baptism.

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  7. Intriguingly, then, we appear to agree on part of what baptism is - namely, the offering of the promises of the gospel. But I see in baptism also an acceptance of those promises (i.e. by consciously submitting to baptism), and therefore restrict baptism to those able to respond in faith, whereas you would presumably argue that the promises will (hopefuly) be consciously accepted later in life.

    Essentially, I think paedobaptists separate two "parts" (so to speak) of baptism which belong together - something which seems to be implicitly accepted by episcopal communions who practice the (unBiblical) ritual of confirmation.

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