Is 9Marks View of Baptism Biblical?

By | June 28, 2013

“Paul is writing not only to the Galatian elders. He’s writing to the whole church. And he’s saying that the church is responsible to evaluate the teaching that comes from the pulpit. They are not to passively accept anything that comes out of the preacher’s mouth, but are to hold it up to the light of Christ and test it by His Word. And if the teaching fails the test, the whole church is responsible to quit listening to the teacher – even if that teacher is an apostle like Paul himself.”, Mark Dever

Mark Dever has a strong opinion on baptism.  I don’t object to strong opinions because most of my opinions I also hold to quite strongly, (baptism being one of the exceptions – I have read much on the subject and am still undecided!) and, after all, the Bible seems to lend credence to holding a strong opinion on matters:

“One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind.”  Romans 14:5

Mark Dever is so convinced he holds the correct position on the sacrament of baptism (believer’s baptism) that he believes his Christian brothers who hold the opposing view (infant baptism/paedobaptism) are sinning!  Here is what Mark Dever had to say:

“In my article in the new 9Marks Journal, I wrote, “I have many dear paedobaptist friends from whom I have learned much. Yet I see their practice as a sinful (though sincere) error from which God protects them by allowing for inconsistency in their doctrinal system, just as he graciously protects me from consistency with my own errors.”
That statement, much to my surprise, has caused concern among some.  That a Baptist thinks infant baptism is wrong was no news to earlier generations of paedobaptists.  Today, it seems to be a surprise.  Now, the truth is out, all of these years, I have been cooperating with those I take to be sinners–Ligon Duncan, Peter Jensen, Phillip Jensen, Philip Ryken, J. I. Packer and many others too numerous to name–sinners specifically on this point of infant baptism.”

(Editor’s note: It seems the original article, published in 2009, has been removed. I have a screen shot of it below. In 2014 the article was republished and may be found here.

Strong words!  It is hard for me to believe that Dever is surprised at the concern coming from his padeobaptism brethren over being labeled sinners by him.  He is correct that it is not news to one who subscribes to infant baptism that Baptists think infant baptism is wrong. But it appears what Dever is attempting to do with his statement is a classic misdirection maneuver. Those who expressed concern did not do so on account of Dever’s view of baptism, but rather that Dever would label them sinners for holding to their view. To be fair to Dever, he is not the first to utter strong words against those of differing views on the subject of baptism.  John Calvin said of those who held similar views to Mark Dever:

“Yet Scripture opens to us a still surer knowledge of the truth. Indeed, it is most evident that the covenant which the Lord once made with Abraham is no less in force today for Christians than it was of old for the Jewish people, and that this work relates no less to Christians than it then related to the Jews. Unless perhaps we think that Christ by his coming lessened or curtailed the grace of the Father — but this is nothing but execrable blasphemy! Accordingly, the children of the Jews also, because they had been made heirs of his covenant and distinguished from the children of the impious, were called a holy seed. For this same reason the children of Christians are considered holy; and even though born with only one believing parent, by the apostle’s testimony they differ from the unclean seed of idolators. Now seeing that the Lord immediately after making the covenant with Abraham commanded it to be sealed in infants by an outward sacrament, what excuse will Christians give for not testifying and sealing it in their children today?” (Institutes, Book IV. 16. 6)”

So, as you can see baptism has been debated by theologians for centuries.  I can add nothing of value to the discussion and as I am undecided on the subject have no interest in persuading you of the merits of one view over the other.

The purpose of this article is to examine two differing views of believer’s baptism. One viewpoint, called “spontaneous baptisms”, refers to baptizing a believer within a short time after he has confessed to being born again. The other view, held to by Mark Dever, is that you should not baptize an individual immediately after he has confessed to being born again, but rather should take some time to examine his life to make certain that he really is converted.

In the video below Mark Dever addresses the issue of “spontaneous baptisms.”  I must confess the term is new to me; I was a bit shocked to discover that “spontaneous baptisms” are such a cause of concern to Mark Dever and his 9Marks disciples.  Here is the video and it would be helpful for you to watch it to understand Dever’s position:

I was amazed at the number of times these men attempt to justify their position by appealing to the needs of the culture they find themselves in the midst of rather than following the pattern we see so clearly in the Bible.

I am an uneducated member of the Christian laity, but it seems readily apparent to me in reading the Bible, specifically the book of Acts, that spontaneous baptisms were what occurred in the days of the Apostles.  For starters examine Acts 2:36-41:

“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”  And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”  So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”

It looks to me like a “spontaneous baptism” of about 3000 people occurred the same day these people repented and believed in Jesus Christ.  Since various baptisms were common in the Jewish society at this time one would think perhaps Peter and the other apostles should have taken some time to deconstruct the potential misconceptions of this new phenomenon of Christian baptism.  It would also seem prudent to take some time to examine the fruit in the lives of these new believers to ascertain the validity of their conversions.  After all, weeding out those with a less than orthodox understanding of what had just transpired in their lives would only strengthen the church!

Next we turn to Acts 8:9-24:

“But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great.  They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.  Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.  Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.  Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”  But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!  You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.  Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”  And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.””

It looks to me like another “spontaneous baptism” even though Simon later showed signs of immaturity in his Christian walk as evidenced by his attempt to purchase the power the apostles had.

Next we turn to Acts 8:34-39:

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”  Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.  And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”  And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.  And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.”  

Yep, looks like another “spontaneous baptism” and the Lord didn’t even see fit to keep Philip around to disciple the eunuch!  One would think the potential for unorthodox doctrine with the resulting disrepute brought the name of the Lord to be extremely high in the case of the eunuch.

Next we turn to Acts 9:17-19 and Acts 22:14-16, both accounts of the conversion of Saul/Paul:

“So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.”

“And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard.  And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’”    

Another “spontaneous baptism”!  Now in my mind if ever there were a case for delaying a baptism this would have been the time.  Saul was the chief enemy of Christianity, presiding over the stoning of Stephen and rounding up believers all around Jerusalem and then traveling to Damascus to arrest more Christians.  Ananias surely wouldn’t have been faulted for taking some extra time examining the life of Saul, ascertaining the validity of his confession of faith prior to baptizing him.  After all, this could just be a ploy on Saul’s part to infiltrate the ranks of the believers.

Next we turn to Acts 10:23-29, 42-48:

“The next day he rose and went away with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa accompanied him.  And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.  When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him.  But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.”  And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered.  And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.  So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me. …And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.  And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.  For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.  

Here we see the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles.  These guys did not have the biblical, monotheistic legacy of the Jewish people, but instead came from a background of paganism.  Surely some careful deconstructing prior to baptism would be in order?  Some grounding in the word, some careful examination of their lives? Nope, just another “spontaneous baptism”.

Next we turn to Acts 16:13-15:

“And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.  And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.”  

It looks like another “spontaneous baptism” and dare we assume there may have been children among Lydia’s household?  Wow, I don’t know – baptizing newly converted youngsters – risky business!  The chance of false conversions is high and what disrepute is brought to the Lord should these children fall away from the faith at some later point.

Next we turn to Acts 18:8:

“Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized

This situation is not a clear-cut case for “spontaneous baptism” as no time factor is specifically stated between the time of believing and being baptized.  We can probably safely assume that they were baptized shortly after their conversion, as was the pattern we have seen in previous verses, but Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half so it is possible that new believers were not immediately baptized.  Crispus’ entire household believed in the Lord, so once again I would assume this included children, children who at some point were baptized.

Next is the account of the jailer in Acts 16:30-34:

“Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.  And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.  Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.”   

Once again a case of  “spontaneous baptism” and once again I think it safe to assume that children were among those whom believed and were baptized.

So, after examining numerous passages in Acts, I think it is safe to conclude that  “spontaneous baptism” is the biblical pattern utilized in the New Testament Church.  Those baptized were Jews and Gentiles, male and female, adults and children, from all walks of life.

I would now like to examine Mark Dever’s stance on believer’s baptism in an attempt to ascertain what forms his viewpoint. It would appear Dever does not have a large issue with baptizing adults upon a credible confession of faith, though he would not be likely to baptize them immediately after their conversion.  Children are another matter. Dever seems to imply that generally they will be hesitant to baptize a child until such time as the child has demonstrated some independence from their parents and be out from under the authority of their parents. Capitol Hill Baptist Church, the church which Mark Dever pastors, has published a paper which lays out their view quite clearly.  This document can be found here:

Baptism of Children

The Baptism of Children at CHBC (2004)

We, the elders of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church, after prayerful searching of the Scriptures and discussion conclude that, while Scripture is quite clear that believers only are to be baptized, the age at which a believer is to be baptized is not directly addressed in Scripture. We do not understand the simple imperative command to be baptized to settle the issue, nor do we understand the imperative to be baptized to forbid raising questions about the appropriateness of a baptismal candidate’s maturity. We do understand that the consideration of an appropriate age for a believer to be baptized is a matter not of simple obedience on an issue clearly settled by Scripture, but rather is a matter of Christian wisdom and prudence on an issue not directly addressed by Scripture. Though the baptisms in the New Testament seem largely to have occurred soon after the initial conversion, all of the individuals we can read of are both adults and coming from a non-Christian context. Both of these factors would tend to lend credibility to a conversion. The credibility of the conversion is the prime consideration, with the effect upon the individual candidate and the church community being legitimate secondary concerns.

We believe that the normal age of baptism should be when the credibility of one’s conversion becomes naturally evident to the church community. This would normally be when the child has matured, and is beginning to live more self-consciously as an individual, making their own choices, having left the God-given, intended child-like dependence on their parents for the God-given, intended mature wisdom which marks one who has felt the tug of the world, the flesh and the devil, but has decided, despite these allurements, to follow Christ. While it is difficult to set a certain number of years which are required for baptism, it is appropriate to consider the candidate’s maturity. The kind of maturity that we feel it is wise to expect is the maturity which would allow that son or daughter to deal directly with the church as a whole, and not, fundamentally, to be under their parents’ authority. As they assume adult responsibilities (sometime in late high school with driving, employment, non-Christian friends, voting, legality of marriage), then part of this, we would think, would be to declare publicly their allegiance to Christ by baptism.

With the consent and encouragement of Christian parents who are members, we will carefully consider requests for baptism before a child has left the home, but would urge the parents to caution at this point. Of course children can be converted. We pray that none of our children ever know any lengthy period of conscious rebellion against God. The question raised by baptism is the ability of others to be fairly confident of that conversion. The malleable nature of children (which changeableness God especially intends for the time when they are living as dependents in the home, being trained in all the basics of life and faith) is a gift from God and is to be used to bring them to maturity. It should also give us caution in assuming the permanence of desires, dreams, affections and decisions of children. Nevertheless, should the young person desire to pursue baptism and membership in the normal course set out by the church, we will examine them on a case-by-case basis, with the involvement of the parents.

In the event of young persons from non-Christian families coming to the church for an extended period of time, professing faith and giving evidence of the reality thereof, requests for baptism and membership would be considered without the involvement of the parents. While all the previous comments on the nature of immaturity still pertain, the fact that such a young person would be doing so despite indifference, or even opposition from their parents would or could be evidence for the reality of their conversion.

Nothing in this statement should be construed as casting doubt about the legitimacy of the baptism of any among us, regardless of how young they were when they were baptized. Because they have continued in the faith into their adult years we assume the legitimacy of their initial profession made at baptism. The question we are concerned with here is looking forward, not backward. To put it another way, we are raising the question about how many people have been baptized at this church in the past as younger people and children who went on to give no evidence of ever having been savingly converted, and what damage was done to them, and to the witness of the gospel through the church’s premature baptism of them. It is our judgment that while there is some danger of discouragement on the part of those children who do give some good evidence of being converted and yet are not baptized and welcomed into communicant membership in the church, through good teaching in the home, and through the loving inclusion of the families in the church as we currently do, that danger is small. There is, however, we believe, a greater danger of deception on the part of many who could be wrongly baptized at an age in which people are more liable to make decisions which are sincere, but ill-founded and too often short-lived.

Two other notes in conclusion. First, we realize that this issue is an issue of great emotion for some, and we in no way are trying to lead anyone to disobey their conscience on this matter; we simply are trying to inform and educate our consciences from the Scriptural necessity of a credible profession of faith for baptism. Second, while it is not generally known among American evangelicals today, the practice of baptizing pre-teenage children is of recent development (largely early 20th century) and of limited geography (largely limited to the United States, and places where American evangelicals have exercised great influence). Baptists in the past were known for waiting to baptize until the believers were adults. Baptistic Christians around the world are still much more cautious than modern American Christians, often waiting in Europe, Africa and Asia to baptize until children are grown and are in their 20′s.

Dr. Vern S. Poythress teaches New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  He has written a paper in which he differs from the views espoused by Mark Dever and 9Marks.  I think Dr. Poythress has handled this subject in an exemplary manner and I would recommend you read his entire article.  It is too lengthy to quote in its entirety, but below you will find some relevant quotes.

Proper understanding of the course of Christian growth among adults also affects our understanding of spiritual growth among children. Likewise, the understanding of the role of baptism among adults has implications for the baptism of children. Consideration of the twin dangers of indifferentism and rigorism in dealing with adults and children leads to the conclusion that we should baptize small children who profess faith.

Indifferentism presumes that church members are secure and so neglects exhorting them to grow and rebuking them for sin. Rigorism makes the standards of admission to the church so high that only the spiritually mature can meet them. Both indifferentism and rigorism are contrary to the biblical picture of gradual growth in maturity through active participation in the life of the body (Eph 4:11-16).

What are the implications for small children? A profession of faith by a small child may be genuine, even though it does not show all the maturity that characterizes a profession by a spiritually mature adult. We must not impose rigoristic standards for a profession of faith, such as only a adult or teenager could meet. We must recognize that Christian faith is primarily personal trust in Christ rather than intellectual mastery or technical skill in verbal articulation of the truth. On the other hand, after a child has professed faith, we must avoid the indifferentist error. The child needs much instruction, much time, and much growth to come to maturity.

Baptism has a role to play. Baptism marks the inception of Christian living and the beginning of membership in the church. It ought not to be confined to those with some kind of mature or long-tested faith. We must avoid rigorism at this point if we are to practice genuine love toward children. Hence, we need to baptize small children who give a credible profession of faith. Leaders will find that as they adjust to the capabilities of children, and the congregation becomes used to instructing and exhorting children in an appropriate way at an early age, the age of baptismal candidates will decrease down to three or even two years.

Change in this area is not optional: it is an implication of practicing biblical love towards children.

…The church is not a private club, with rules determined in whatever way the members wish, but a community ruled by Christ. Hence, membership in a visible Christian community ought to be determined not by an arbitrary set of rules and regulations, nor by the autonomous decision of Christian leaders, but by the authority of Christ. We are obliged to receive all whom Christ instructs us to receive. And conversely, we are obliged to exclude those whom Christ instructs us to exclude. We receive repentant sinners, even though they are imperfect, while we exclude upstanding, moral, self-sufficient “righteous” people who refuse to acknowledge Christ’s saving work.

Because union with Christ is at the heart of our salvation, some people have inferred that the church consists only of those who are regenerate, that is, only those savingly united to Christ. But only God knows perfectly who these people are. “The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Tim 2:19)—but we do not. In fact, the visible church includes wolves and hypocrites as well as the genuine sheep (that is, those who are regenerate). 1 John 2:19 indicates that some people “‘went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” These people were not regenerate: “none of them belonged to us.” But they were for a time members of the visible church: “they would have remained with us.” Similarly, in Acts 20:29-30 Paul warns that “savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”

Entrance into the church through credible profession of faith

Now let us consider entrance into the church. Who is to be allowed to enter the church? We welcome those whom Christ instructs us to welcome. Fundamentally, we welcome the same kind of people who are already in the church. We welcome those who are committed to the gospel and to the process of encouragement and rebuke through which we help one another to persevere. Hence, the proper practice is to admit adults to the church and to Christian baptism when they give a “credible profession of faith.” They “profess faith,” that is, they acknowledge that they trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation. But the leaders or examiners of candidates need not make infallibly sure of the genuineness of this faith. Indeed, they cannot, since no one knows his own heart perfectly, let alone the hearts of others (Jer 17:9). Nor should the examiners try to detect infallible traces of the work of the Holy Spirit at the moment of regeneration. For, as John 3:8 tells us, the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is deeply mysterious, and is known by us only through its effects, not in its ultimate origins. Moreover, adult professions of faith ought to be “credible,” believable.. For a new convert, credibility does not mean perfection; it means believable willingness on the part of the convert to follow Christ along the road of progressive obedience and progressive sanctification. It is enough that converts have taken the first step, not that they have already proved themselves all at once to have reached the middle or the end of the road.

We may try to admit only those who are regenerate. But we do not know infallibly who is regenerate. Do we then try to raise our standards to exclude as many hypocrites as possible? We may make the standards higher and higher, in order to exclude cases with the least possible doubt. But the result is that we require at the beginning maturity that Christ brings only along the way.

Rigorism simply misunderstands Christian growth and perseverance. It has a false conception of the purity of the church. It has too much confidence in the ability of leaders to discern people’s hearts, and simultaneously too little confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit within the community to bring about growth and to bring about excommunication in cases of lack of repentance.

To many church leaders, it seems that there is no good alternative to rigorism. If we admit people easily, then these people through their doctrinal errors will corrupt the doctrine of the church. Hence we would show that we were indifferent to good doctrine. On the other hand, if we require thorough doctrinal understanding before we admit people to membership, we practice rigoristic exclusiveness. We become a sect, a private club, by excluding many people whom Christ himself freely receives as brothers and sisters in the faith (Rom 8:29; Heb 2:12).

Young children

Let us then consider the situation with young children. We need to listen accurately to young children. Listen to the young children within your church, the children who are being raised in solid Christian homes. Talk with the 5-year-olds. Talk with the 3-year-olds. Talk with the 2-year-olds. Ask them about what Jesus has done for them. Ask whether they love Jesus. Ask whether Jesus loves them. I think that you will hear a lot of credible professions of faith. To be sure, you may have to make some adjustments in interpreting their statements. Many children in evangelical circles have been taught primarily to use the language of “loving Jesus” rather than “trusting Jesus for salvation.” But they do think that Jesus is trustworthy, and their love therefore includes an element of trust. “Salvation” may be a difficult word for them, but they know that Jesus can deal with their badness. They cannot articulate the full theology of substitutionary atonement, but they have a basic confidence that Jesus can do whatever it takes to meet their problems. Of course, you will sometimes hear statements that are confused or doubtful, or signs that children do not know what to say. You can in love do a little teaching. Help the children to grow so that their profession is stronger and more credible.

Many of us have not really awakened to what is going on under our noses. Many of these children are Christians. Many of us don’t believe so, because we demand adult or quasi-adult maturity first. But, as the above reflections have shown, such a demand is not right.

We might react by reminding ourselves that the faith of children is naive and shallow and may easily be shaken or destroyed by the crises that they will meet as they grow older. But the same is true of adults who are new to the faith. On the deepest level, the same is true of us all. We are children in comparison with what we could be. And we would fall away if the Lord did not sustain us.

Again, we might object by saying that we may not receive children until we are sure that they will not in fact fall away. We will receive them as Christians only when their faith has been tested and matured. But, as we have seen above, such a procedure is not appropriate even for adults. The problems of backsliding and apostasy are fundamentally the same for adults and for children. The practical realities of backsliding and apostasy do not destroy our obligations to treat adult converts as Christians. We treat them as Christians unless and until they prove themselves otherwise by apostasy. And we encourage, exhort, and strengthen them in every way in order to endeavor to guard them against apostasy (Heb 10:24-25). Likewise with children.

Baptism as a sign of entrance into the visible church

Now what about baptism? Who should be baptized? Christians differ over the theological meaning and significance of baptism. Such differences obviously make it more difficult to agree about the practical use of baptism. But I believe many will at least admit this much, that in the New Testament baptism was the primary sign of initiation for admission into the church, the visible, practicing Christian community. In the first century Christians were able to distinguish insiders from outsiders. As far as we know, there were no formal membership rolls, but there was nevertheless a clear, practical distinction between the church and world. Entrance into the church came by baptism. Occasionally people had to be put out by excommunication. In the practical life of the church, there was no such thing as an unbaptized Christian.

For example, Paul says in 1 Cor 12:13, “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body.” With these words Paul assumes that all Christians he is addressing have been baptized. True, Paul focuses on the internal work of the Holy Spirit, rather than the external use of water in water-baptism. But his argument would lose its force if not every member of the church had been baptized. Similarly, the arguments in Rom 6:3-4, Gal 3:27, Eph 4:5, and elsewhere lose some of their punch unless Paul can rely on the fact that all the Christians he is addressing have been baptized.

Hence, baptism in the name of Jesus functions in the New Testament to mark the beginning of the Christian life. Baptism was not merely for those with mature, tested faith, but for those starting the Christian walk. Therefore, in Acts adult converts were baptized when they professed faith. Later in church history, baptism was delayed until after people had gone through catechetical training. But I believe this practice represents a deviation rather than an improvement. Most catechetical training belongs after baptism. Baptism is at the beginning, because it signifies the inception of union with Christ (Rom 6:1-4). Following baptism one enters on a whole lifetime of discipleship, including catechism or doctrinal training that brings us into deeper knowledge of the gospel and the Christian faith.

Now what do we do with children born to Christian parents? The above reasoning implies that they should be baptized at least as soon as they have a credible profession of faith. And what counts as a credible profession? Such profession could be pushed back very early, to the time soon after children begin to verbalize in sentences. If we were to operate in this way, we would not be practicing “infant baptism,” but small-child-baptism. It would, I believe, be an improvement on typical modern baptistic practice.

Baptistic practice typically waits until children are quite a bit older. Why the delay occurs is not clear. Perhaps some baptists have simply not realized that baptism should mark the beginning of life in the Christian community. At times, however, there may be an underlying desire (perhaps not fully thought out) to have tested, mature, “adult” faith first. Such a desire is understandable, since mature faith ought indeed to be held out as a model and a goal. But we make a mistake if we confuse the goal with the minimum starting point. Such confusion is inconsistent with the whole nature of the Christian experience. Christian experience nearly always has small and stumbling beginnings. Moreover, delay in baptism is inconsistent with Christian love, which does not wait for mature proof before embracing brothers in love. It is inconsistent with Christ, who receives us when we come to him, not when we have proved ourselves mature.

Let me put it another way. With respect to both adults and children, the Christian church is supposed to be neither indifferentist nor rigorist. In contrast to indifferentism, the church devotes itself to continual exhortation and rebuke of both adults and children. It takes seriously the danger of backsliding and apostasy. In contrast to rigorism, the church welcomes even halting professions of faith. The church has “easy” entrance requirements (antirigorism) and a “hard,” disciplined attitude toward perseverance (anti-indifferentism).

Some baptists may nevertheless not agree. They want another solution. They do admit that young children may be believers. They are quite willing to receive them as brothers in the family of God, and to respect their role in the family of God. But they do not want to baptize them just yet. To this position the reply must be, “Why do you not baptize them?” The delay of baptism is hypocritical. You say that you see these people as fellow Christians, and that they are in the family of God. Your words say it, but your action denies it. Withholding baptism says in action that they are not in the family of God.

The only other option is to try to change the meaning of baptism from a sign of initiation to a badge of maturity. Then one has a two-level Christianity, consisting of baptized and unbaptized Christians. The baptized are the mature, and the unbaptized are the immature scum. This two level approach utterly misses the point of Luke 18:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 12 (note especially 12:13).


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