The subject of Christian baptism can be a difficult discussion to have because there are a couple of different views about it and Christians do not agree. Not only do Christians disagree about baptism they also disagree about the importance of their disagreement. For some Christians baptism is closely related to conversion and becoming a Christian. To these folks, baptism is an extremely important issue on which there can be no ambiguity at all. To other Christians the discussion is not an issue on which anyone’s eternal salvation hangs, which downgrades the importance, and hopefully the intensity, of the debate.
What is the debate on baptism?
First, there is a debate about WHO should be or can be baptized. While not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, the practice of infant baptism soon became the norm in the ancient Church and was never seriously questioned until the time of the Reformation when some of the more radical members of the Protestant Movement began to argue that only believers can or should be baptized.
Secondly, there is a debate on HOW people should be baptized, or the mode of baptism. Some have sprinkled or poured water as the act of baptism. But others have pointed out that the literal meaning of the word in the New Testament is to plunge, to dip, or to immerse. Therefore, it has been argued that the true and proper mode of baptism must consist of putting the person being baptized completely under the water.
Thirdly, there is a debate about WHAT happens when a person is baptized. Some believe that a spiritual operation is accomplished at the precise moment a person is baptized. They argue that this is the specific point in time when a person is regenerated and crosses over from a state of sin to being in Christ. Others say that the precise moment in time when conversion happens is not connected to the act of baptism at all but is a mysterious operation or work of the Spirit of God.
To summarize the debate, the questions about baptism are as follows: who can be baptized, how they should be baptized, and what happens during the act of baptism.
Something that nearly all Protestants have rejected is the idea of BAPTISMAL REGENERATION. This is the idea that a person is regenerated or saved BECAUSE they have been baptized. We must reject this view simply because it cannot be supported by Scripture. Scripture clearly teaches that we are saved by or through faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. Teaching that a person is saved just because they have been baptized in water contradicts this clear and foundational doctrine of Scripture. Wherever we go from here in a discussion or debate about baptism must be based on a rejection of baptismal regeneration or there can be no Scriptural resolution to this issue. Therefore, it seems that the debate about WHAT happens when a person is baptized has been somewhat clarified. Taking a dogmatic position that a person is only regenerated at the precise moment of their baptism sounds exactly like baptismal regeneration and must therefore be rejected as unscriptural.
But the two other questions about baptism remain. And within Protestantism there are two models for Christian baptism that have developed. Some Protestants still baptize infants based on a Covenantal understanding of Scripture. Other Protestants have adopted the practice of believer’s baptism.
Let’s look briefly at each model of Christian baptism.
Those who baptize infants argue that in the covenant God made with Abraham, which was carried over into the Law of Moses, the sign of the covenant, which was circumcision, was done to infant males. The sign of the New Covenant is baptism, which the apostle Paul clearly equates with the practice of circumcision (See Colossians 2.11-12). So, some Christian thinkers have reasoned like this: if the original sign of the covenant (circumcision) was done to infants, then the newer sign of the covenant (baptism) can also be administered to infants. Of course, this is all done on the assumption that the infant is going to be raised within the Covenant Community, which today is the Church, by believing parents. At some point in the future the child who was baptized as an infant can make his or her own profession of faith.
Those who practice believer’s baptism argue that only believers who consciously and willingly profess faith in Christ should be baptized, which is something an infant obviously cannot do. Furthermore, they argue, there are no explicit, concrete examples of infants being baptized in the New Testament Scripture. Therefore, the practice must have just developed as a tradition later in the Church. Those who practice believer’s baptism typically argue that their position has the most Biblical support, while infant baptism must just be a tradition of the Church.
Today it is typical for Christians who practice one or the other model of baptism to still accept those who practice the other type of baptism. This is because the issue is not deciding anyone’s salvation. Therefore, we can allow for a difference of opinion and of practice. In the Evangelical community there is consensus around the content of the Gospel message and salvation through faith in Jesus with allowance for differences on baptism. This, it seems to me, is the right way to view the entire discussion about baptism.
On an individual basis, each person is free to adopt one position over the other while extending grace and charity to those who take the opposite position. Churches may choose to practice only believer’s baptism, while still accepting those who were baptized as infants. And Churches that practice infant baptism should be willing to baptize adults who profess faith in Christ but were not baptized as infants.
There is one final issue: the practice of baptizing adults who profess faith but who have already been baptized as infants. This can be a complex and sensitive issue that almost deserves another article. However, I will briefly explain my own position here as I conclude. In my view, a person who was baptized as an infant should not be required to be baptized again as an adult. And the Church should make it very clear to these folks that their right standing with God is based on their faith in the finished work of Christ and not on their baptism. Those whose conscience is weak on this issue, and who may be requesting to be baptized again, need to be taken directly to the Gospel as the only true basis for Christian assurance.