Three Views on Baptism

A little over a year ago, I wrote on this blog that I was going to begin a thorough study of the doctrine and practice of baptism. Though I haven’t written much on it since, my studies continue, and my personal views on baptism are maturing. At some point (though I don’t know when I’ll feel ready) I want to spend time writing some serious reflections on what I’m learning, but for now I can at least share the short version.

While I remain a committed credobaptist, my understanding of other viewpoints is much better. My hope is that this will allow me to be more gracious toward those with whom I differ on this doctrine, and better able to articulate why I am a Baptist. Best of all, I am developing an appreciation for how challenging the issue is, and how important baptism is to Christian faith. Before I began my study, I was guilty of what Jonathan Leeman (in an article I’ll link below) calls the second of two errors that Christians tend to have regarding baptism:

There are two opposite errors that evangelical Christians easily stumble into on the topic of baptism: we treat it with too little or too much importance…

The solution to the first error is to recognize that baptism may not be essential, but it is important. The solution to the second is to realize that baptism is important, but not essential. In short, Christians need at least three categories for setting theological priorities: essential, important, and unimportant. We often miss that middle category, and act as if everything is either essential or completely unimportant.

This is from Leeman’s excellent review of Baptism: Three Views edited by David Wright. I’ve not written reviews of any of the baptism books I’ve read, but I could not have done a better job of reviewing this one than Leeman. It’s worth your time to check it out!

I really only have one thing to add to the above review. Like Leeman, I found it difficult to approach the book as an objective reader, as hard as I tried to do so. But when I was feeling most objective, I found Bruce Ware’s arguments to be the least persuasive. Maybe this is because his were the points with which I was already most familiar, or maybe it was because I was consciously trying to be sympathetic to the other viewpoints, but I was disappointed that the Baptist view seemed (at least upon first reading) to be the weakest argument in the book.

Jonathan Leeman may have pinpointed the reason for this in his review. The nature of the covenantal paedobaptist position “requires greater theological sophistication and canonical sensitivity” than the credobaptist position, because of the different hermeneutic principles utilized by the two sides. For this reason, Sinclair Ferguson’s defense of infant baptism was perhaps better suited to this format. Ware’s defense of believer baptism seemed simple by comparison to Ferguson’s nuanced and sophisticated reasoning… but maybe that’s the whole point?

Anyway, here are some of the other books I’ve read on baptism, which I’ll hopefully get around to reviewing in detail later:

  • Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace by Paul Jewitt — Though it has infant baptism in the title, this book was written as a refutation of the practice. John Piper attributed much of his confidence in believer’s baptism to Jewitt’s work in this book, so I was intrigued. I didn’t find it quite as compelling as Piper made it sound, though he certainly builds a strong case.
  • To A Thousand Generations: Infant Baptism — Covenant Mercy to the Children of God by Douglas Wilson — Of the books I’ve read from a paedobaptist position, this has been the best. Interestingly, Wilson’s church, while Presbyterian, is a dual-practice church, leaving the decision in the hands of parents on whether to baptize children as infants or after a profession of faith. I previously attended a church with a similar stance on baptism, so it’s an idea that intrigues me.
  • The God I Never Knew: How Real Friendship With the Holy Spirit Can Change Your Life by Robert Morris — I read this one in part because it talks at length about the Pentecostal teaching of a third “baptism of the Holy Spirit”. While there are probably better examples of this position out there, this one was a complete waste of time, bordering on the heretical. Here’s my full review.
  • Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ edited by Tom Schreiner — Though I’ve not yet read every essay in this book, when it’s all said and done I’m likely going to concur with the many baptist pastors who have told me that this is the best book available on the side of believer’s baptism.

Discerning the Conversion of a Child

Several months ago, I began an intensive study of baptism. I hope to write soon on what God has been teaching me, but today wanted to point out an excellent article that gets to the root of one of the main reasons behind my baptism study. How can parents and pastors tell when a child is truly converted?

Brian Croft lists five evidences of a regenerate heart in children and teens:

  1. A growing affection and need for Jesus and the gospel.
  2. A heightened understanding of the truths of Scripture.
  3. An increased kindness and selflessness toward siblings.
  4. A greater awareness and distaste for sin.
  5. A noticeable desire to obey parents.

His article is very short, but immensely helpful for baptists and paedobaptists alike. Read it here.

The Divided Waters

Before I start my study on baptism, I wanted to post a roundup of different positions on baptism, along with some of my preliminary thoughts. I expect that some of these thoughts will change over the course of my study, but it will be good to look back and see where I started.

One thing I’ve noticed is that many people within my own tradition seem to break the baptism debate down to two sides: infant baptism versus believers’ baptism. However, the issue is far more complicated than that, with many nuanced positions held by various denominations and traditions. Here is a breakdown of some of the different aspects of baptism that must go into the consideration of the issue.

Water Baptism: Yes or No?

The first aspect is whether water baptism is practiced at all. Most Christians throughout history have practiced some form of water baptism (including Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, and most other denominations). However, some groups, such as Quakers and the Salvation Army, do not practice water baptism at all, believing that an outward sign adds nothing to the inward baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Who Gets Baptized?

Paedobaptists believe that baptism is the sign of God’s promise to believers and their children. Therefore, they administer water baptism to the infant children of believing parents. Adults converted to faith in Christ are baptized following a profession of faith. Paedobaptists include Anglicans, Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians.

Credobaptists believe that baptism is the outward sign of an inward commitment, and should thus be administered only following a profession of faith from someone who has heard and believed the gospel. This group includes Baptists, Assemblies of God, and Churches of Christ.

Within the credobaptist position there are several varieties. Some congregations and denominations allow for the baptism of anyone who makes a verbal profession of faith, without any other criteria. Some impose an age limit (the age can vary widely), believing that young children are incapable of making a credible profession of faith. Others, such as Romanian Baptists, require converts to undergo a confirmation process of catechesis prior to baptism, allowing the local church to credibly vouch for salvation before administering baptism.

Dual Practice churches allow for both paedo- and credobaptist practice, taking a supportive stance of families who have convictions one way or the other. The Evangelical Free Church in America holds this position (though the vast majority of EFCA baptisms are to adults), as do many independent churches.

Baptismal Regeneration

Baptismal Regeneration is the belief that the Holy Spirit’s act of regeneration is conferred through the act of water baptism. In other words, a person is “saved” at the time of baptism. This belief is most common among paedobaptists, though not all paedobaptists believe this. Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists are among the denominations with this belief, though some (notably Methodists) believe that infant baptisms must be followed later by repentance and a profession of faith to confirm that spiritual regeneration has happened.

Presbyterians and most Reformed churches teach that baptism is a sign of God’s promise, but does not actually convey that promise (i.e. baptized babies are not “saved” yet). Conversion/regeneration happens at a later time. This position is known as covenantal paedobaptism.

Most credobaptists agree that baptism is a sign rather than the thing signified, but disagree about the timing. However, some credobaptists, including many Churches of Christ, believe in some sort of baptismal regeneration, holding that water baptism is essential to salvation, rather than “merely” an act of obedience.

Baptism of the Holy Spirit

Most paedo- and credobaptists believe that spiritual baptism happens when the Holy Spirit regenerates someone’s heart. This is the moment at which someone is initiated into the Body of Christ (i.e. the moment of conversion/salvation). Some paedobaptists believe this happens supernaturally through the act of water baptism (see above). Covenantal paedobaptists believe this spiritual baptism follows sometime after water baptism (and that some who are baptized as infants are never regenerated, remaining lost in their sin). Baptists believe that water baptism follows spiritual baptism.

Pentecostal churches such as the Assemblies of God teach that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a separate event that follows conversion and water baptism, in which special spiritual blessing and power are given to some Christians. They believe that all Christians ought to pursue this special blessing, but that it is not necessary for salvation and will not be given to all Christians. They also believe that this special blessing is accompanied by signs, such as speaking in tongues.

Re-Baptism

Some denominations have a practice of “re-baptism”, in which some people receive water baptism on more than one occasion. There are two primary reasons for this practice. The first is a lack of belief in eternal security. Churches that teach that believers can lose their salvation often re-baptize those they see as returning to faith. This is a common practice in Churches of Christ.

Others who practice re-baptism do not believe that true believers can lose their salvation; rather, they believe that if someone’s baptism preceded conversion, it is not valid. Thus, these believers must be baptized again following a profession of faith as a sign of obedience. This is the dominant feature of Anabaptist theology (the word anabaptist literally means “re-baptize”), found in groups like the Mennonites and Amish which grew out of this tradition. This type of re-baptism is also common in Southern Baptist churches. In fact, a recent study showed that as many as 40% of baptisms in Southern Baptist churches are actually re-baptisms.

Mode of Baptism

There are three primary “modes” of water baptism. The first is known as Aspersion, or sprinkling. Proponents of this method believe that the Greek word baptizo can refer to a number of different ways of introducing the element of water, and draw from the common use of sprinkling in the Bible in cleansing rituals. This group includes Presbyterians and Lutherans.

Affusion is the act of pouring water over the one being baptized. This is the mode practiced by Catholics. Most paedobaptists use either aspersion or affusion to baptize infants.

Immersion/Submersion is the act of covering one’s body completely in water. This is meant to symbolically represent death and rebirth, as believers are figuratively raised from “death” to “life” as they emerge from the water. This is the most common method of baptism for credobaptists, though some traditions sprinkle or pour water on adult converts, and some (the Eastern Orthodox, for example) immerse babies. Some make a distinction between immersion and submersion, but most use the terms interchangeably. It is also common for churches to practice and/or accept more than one of the above practices.

My Current Position

I believe that water baptism ought to be practiced. I believe that water baptism is a symbolic act, separate from regeneration. I believe that spiritual baptism happens at the moment of conversion, and that while many Christians do not take full advantage of the power that is ours through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (we can and should pray for spiritual anointing!), the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not a separate event experienced by only some Christians.

I have a very hard time justifying the act of re-baptism (something I’ll get into more in my next post as I attempt to give a critique of my own position). I am fairly indifferent regarding the mode of baptism. I like the symbolism of immersion, but can also see the argument for sprinkling. I do not have the Greek understanding to judge between the various translations proposed for the word baptizo. I’ve read arguments from all sides, but to me this is the least important aspect of baptism. Perhaps I will be more strongly convinced during my study.

So far, this narrows my stance down to a couple different plausible positions. One is the position of my church, which is credobaptism that is available to anyone. Another is a variation on this, delaying baptism for those who have made a profession of faith, because of age restrictions or a confirmation process. The last is covenantal paedobaptism, which is certainly the least complicated! Of course, “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean “right”.

On a practical level (if not a confessional level) I tend to put baptism under the category of Christian liberty. I have a charitable view toward families who feel convicted to baptize their infants and can do so without violating their conscience, so long as they have the understanding that their children must still be regenerated later in order to obtain salvation. I am also sympathetic to the position of the Romanian Baptists and others (such as Mark Dever) who delay baptism for various reasons, though I am still able to rejoice in the baptism of children (having been baptized as a child myself).

Might this position be a result of my having attending an Evangelical Free church for a brief but vital time in my own spiritual formation? The first time anyone ever intentionally discipled me, it was an EFCA elder. Though we never specifically talked about baptism, his influence on my life has been profound, and my current beliefs about baptism are probably related.

I apologize for the length of this post; it is one of the few entries on my blog that is primarily for my own benefit. I look forward to coming back to this post later on to see if and how my position changes after having put some serious study into the matter. If this is of benefit to others as well, so much the better!

Note: All the information in this post is admittedly un-scientific. I am no expert on the theology of other denominations, and at this point, what is written here is coming from my own limited understanding. If I have misrepresented any of these positions, I ask for correction. One of the primary reasons for studying baptism is to be able to accurately represent every position. This is my best effort to do so, but it is done with the realization that I may be wrong at points.

One Lord, One Faith, One What?

When the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in the Ephesian church to encourage them to remain united, he told them to base their unity on the things they had in common: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). These three things distinguish Christians from everyone else in the world. Though doctrinal differences abound, Christians throughout the centuries have been fairly consistent on the first two. All true Christians believe in one Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6). We share the common confession of belief in a Trinitarian God (“one Spirit” – Ephesians 4:4; “one Lord” – Ephesians 4:5; “one God and Father” – Ephesians 4:6).

When it comes to baptism, though, Christians have been infamous for their disunity. Men who love Jesus and worship the true God have fought — and sometimes even killed — one another over disputes about baptism. What does baptism mean? Who should be baptized? What is the proper method of baptizing?

Whatever happened to unity?

On one hand, I can understand the level of emotion involved with baptism. After all, if someone gives allegiance to another Lord besides Christ, or does not share our belief in the Trinitarian God, we believe that person to be accursed (Galatians 1:8-9): bound for Hell apart from God’s saving grace. If “one baptism” similarly means that there is only one acceptable practice of baptism, then the difference between, say, sprinkling and immersion would parallel the difference between those who trust Christ as Savior and those who do not. Get it wrong, and there will be eternal consequences.

This has never been my understanding, however. I believe that the “one baptism” in Ephesians 4 refers to the baptism described in 1 Corinthians 12:13, which is the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration that brings a person into the body of Christ. Because of this understanding, I am able to fellowship with believers from other denominations and traditions. I count as brothers and sisters all those who trust in Christ for their salvation by God’s grace, regardless of when and how the sign of water baptism may have been applied to them.

Still, water baptism is immensely important. It is one of the two ordinances (along with the Lord’s Supper) handed down to the Church by Christ himself. Baptizing the nations is part of the Great Commission. In fact, I belong to a denomination whose very name indicates that what we believe about baptism is a defining characteristic.

I have been tremendously blessed by the teachings of Christians who hold a variety of different positions on baptism. I have benefited from the preaching and writing of Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, and many others, and know that there are great and true believers from each of those traditions.

All this has led me into a bit of a conundrum. The one thing my credobaptist (believer’s baptism) and paedobaptist (infant baptism) friends and mentors seem to share with regard to baptism is a firm conviction that theirs is the correct position. This is something I lack.

The problem isn’t that I am troubled by doubt about my credobaptist position; rather, it’s that I have never devoted myself to the study of the subject, or subjected my belief to the type of challenge that produces genuine conviction. Unlike topics such as soteriology and eschatology (areas of theology in which I have firmly established convictions that are fully my own), I’ve never gone “back to the drawing board” to investigate Scripture’s claims about baptism apart from my own tradition. I’ve never seriously explored various historical positions held by the Church, judging these positions by their own merits and weaknesses.

No, I’m pretty much a Baptist because I’ve always been a Baptist. I’ve never had a reason to doubt the teaching on baptism that I’ve heard from pulpits all my life, so I’ve never given much thought to the alternatives. But for some reason — maybe the fact that I now have children of my own and have had to consider the timing of their baptism as I pray for their conversion — I have felt the need for some time now to engage in a serious study of baptism.

Besides the Bible, I am beginning my search with three books. The first is Baptism: Three Views. This book is in a debate format, featuring Bruce Ware (believer’s baptism), Sinclair Ferguson (infant baptism), and Anthony Lane (dual practice). I’ve read books by all three, and have heard Ware and Ferguson preach in person; I look forward to benefiting from their interaction. I’ve also purchased Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace by Paul Jewett, and To a Thousand Generations by Douglas Wilson. The first is described as one of the most devastating critiques of infant baptism ever written (John Piper attributes much of his credobaptist conviction to this book), while the second is written by a Presbyterian pastor whose arguments on other matters I have always found quite compelling. After reading these books (and likely others) I hope to better understand the different views, and at the very least be able to critique them fairly rather than simply tearing down straw men, which seems to account for much of the credo- vs. paedo- debate.

Don’t get me wrong; I love being a Baptist, and in particular believe that the merits of my church specifically and the Southern Baptist Convention generally are many. This search is not provoked by any sort of crisis of faith, and certainly not out of any desire to depart from the tradition in which I was raised (and am now employed). Honestly, my desire is that I would end up more committed to the position I have always held, while also being better able to promote unity among believers with different views.

In my next few posts, I’ll lay out some specific questions that I hope will be answered through my study of baptism, including some inconsistencies I have observed in my own denomination’s practice of baptism. What about you? Do you have any baptism questions you would like me to address, or books you think ought to be part of my study?