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?