I want to draw a clear distinction between the infant baptism practices of the Catholic church, the Lutheran church and the Methodist church and what I believe is the actual biblical position. I am in no way expressing agreement with the practices and beliefs of any church that would say that baptism of an infant is a conferral of grace upon that child and that it therefore assures them of salvation.
Let me say this clearly. The biblical testimony is clear. Baptism will not save you.
So when I say that I am a paedobaptist, I use the term ‘covenant baptism.’ I use that term because I want to avoid confusion. I do not want anyone to think that I, in any way, affirm the baptism practices of non-orthodox churches. Did I say that clearly enough? Again, I think words matter and have meaning so I am very deliberate when I say that I believe in covenant baptism. I use that terminology on purpose.
But I don’t want to get too involved in refuting some claims of the Catholic church in this post. My purpose in this post is to continue in our baptism journey. What I’d like to do in this post is to define baptism, talk about the Old Testament perspective on baptism and the history of baptism in the Jewish faith. We’ll get into the orthodox view of baptism later. By orthodox I mean the church that has practiced and affirmed the Christian faith as it has been given to us in God’s Word and fleshed out in history. There are very basic things that, biblically speaking, make one orthodox. What I mean by orthodox is what the Bible says Christianity is and what the Church has affirmed over a couple of thousand years. We stand, as Christians, in a long line of believers and that history has meaning.
So first, defining baptism. I think a lot of the work of defining baptism leads into a discussion on what you think baptism is or is not. That seems a bit circular so let me explain. If you believe baptism is salvific in nature, then how it is defined changes from baptism being non-salvific. Actually, the meaning of baptism and the definition of baptism are kind of different so let’s just define it.
Baptism is generally defined, from the Greek word baptizo, as “to dip or immerse.” At its root, it is a group of words used to signify a religious rite or ritual cleansing. We won’t get into a conversation on mode of baptism (ie immersion vs. pouring or sprinkling) right now. There is debate about the meaning of the Greek word used in the New Testament. I won’t use this post to belabor etymology points but simply to acknowledge that there is debate about what the word actually means. Like many words in both Greek and Hebrew, it has a range of nuances and meanings. The Westminster Confession is helpful in defining baptism. In chapter 28, the Westminster Divines discussed baptism and they defined it in section one:
Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His church until the end of the world.
For all my non confessional friends, don’t get nervous about the use of the word sacrament. Notice something that was said in this definition. Notice that it is a sign and seal and not salvific in and of itself. I really think most American evangelicals fall much more closely to the Catholic understanding and practice of baptism than they do an actual Christian and biblical understanding and practice of baptism.
So how one views baptism can have significance for how it is defined. Let me explain. As I’ve said before, I was raised Baptist. So, for the Baptists, baptism is an outward expression of an inward faith. In other words, it is a public profession of personal faith. We could get into some deeper theological significance of the Baptist position but we’ll keep it simple at that. Most of you reading this will probably have been raised thinking the same thing, that baptism was simply a public profession of faith.
I submit to you that, biblically speaking, there is much more significance to baptism than simply a public profession of faith. I think one of the main problems with that view is, aside from being unbiblical, that it puts the focus on us as individuals rather than on God. So when most people are baptized (in “believer’s baptism”) the focus is on their “public profession” and less on what God has done. In a very subtle way, it changes the focus of salvation and baptism from God centered to man centered.
Think about this with me, even if you disagree with me. Salvation and all its outworkings are expressly not about us but rather about God and what He has done in and through Christ on our behalf and for His glory. In a not so subtle way, we have made salvation about us as individuals rather than about God. The same goes for baptism if we fall into the credobaptist camp, in my opinion.
But if baptism is more than simply a public profession of faith, if it is indeed the sign of entrance into God’s covenant people as began way back in Abraham and it affirms God’s sovereignty and not man’s initiative, then it says much more about God and much less about us. We’ll talk about to whom baptism is to be administered later.
But I’m getting on my soap box now.
So that is about as far as I’ll go on defining baptism right now. Let’s talk a little about history.
I did not realize, until I began to study this issue seriously, that baptism was a practice of the Old Testament also. The ethic nation of Israel also practiced baptism. There were many things under the law that required ritual cleansing with water. For example, touching a corpse or a dead animal or having some type of skin infection required a ritual cleansing with water; a baptism. If you’re looking for specific examples, read Leviticus 13-14 for some specific examples. Now before you push back too hard and say that’s not baptism, let’s go back to the most basic definition of baptism. It is a word that is associated with ritualistic cleansing. So I submit to you that these cleansing rituals under Judaic law were indeed baptisms. Also, under 2nd Temple Judaism, Gentiles who converted to Judaism were baptized and even Jews themselves would sometimes use baptism (immersion) as an act of repentance.
So we’ve defined baptism and talked very briefly about the history of baptism in the OT and in Jewish law. In the next post, we’ll be looking at the baptism of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism and maybe a few other things.
Soli Deo Gloria!