[To listen to the sermon on this topic, click here.]
In the previous post, we discussed the topic of the first mark of a true church as identified by the Reformers: the pure doctrine of the gospel. When it comes to defending the truth, we are to give no quarter for a false gospel. As it relates to defining a true church, the first thing that many of the Reformers identified was the pure doctrine of the Gospel. Without the pure doctrine of the grace of God, the gospel is perverted and a church is missing its foundation. But there were also others aspects that identified a true church to the Reformers. The opening sentences from the article entitled “The Marks of a True Church” in the Belgic Confession are instructive as to why they felt the need to consider the question of what is a true church:
We believe, that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of “the Church.” But we speak not here of hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it; but we say that the body and communion of the true Church must be distinguished from all sects, who call themselves “the Church.” (Article 29)
The Reformers no doubt believed that there were many Christians in the Roman Catholic Church; nevertheless, they denounced the Roman Catholic Church as a false church—it certainly failed to qualify as a true church according to their standards. First and foremost, it abandoned the Gospel of God’s grace. The heresy of Pelagianism, truly embraced, is incompatible with the truth of the gospel. Another area that concerned the Reformers was the issue of the sacraments of the church. So important was this topic, that they listed it as the second (and for some, final) mark of a true church. (Some Reformers included church discipline as the third mark and others simply had two marks.)
In opposition to the seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers accepted only two. The Belgic Confession, from 1561, puts it plainly:
Moreover, we are satisfied with the number of sacraments that Christ our Master has ordained for us. There are only two: the sacrament of baptism and the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ. (Article 33)
The Heidelberg Catechism, question 68, answers the question of how many sacraments there are:
Q. How many sacraments did Christ institute in the New Testament?
A. Two: holy baptism and the holy supper.
The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith explained it as follows (using the word “ordinances” instead of “sacraments”):
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances of positive and sovereign institution, appointed by the Lord Jesus, the only lawgiver, to be continued in his church to the end of the world. (Chapter 28, Section 1)
The Roman Catholic Church said there were seven sacraments in the church―adding confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders to the two accepted by the Reformers. The Reformers’ concern for the purity of the gospel likely lead them to reject these other “sacraments.” They viewed the sacraments as linked to the Word of God and the Gospel. W. Robert Godfrey notes:
The Reformers certainly had a more fundamental concern than just to separate themselves from Rome on the sacraments. They were convinced that the sacraments are a fifth form of the Word, the visible Word. That phrase—“the visible Word”—had originated with Augustine and Calvin in particular had repeated it. The sacraments visibly display the very heart of the Gospel. Baptism shows that we are saved only by the washing away of sin in Jesus, and the Lord’s Supper shows that Christians live only through the body and blood of Christ offered as a sacrifice on the cross. These sacraments are an observable mark of the true church. In a true church the biblical sacraments are faithfully administered and received.
However, rather than spending more time considering why the Reformers picked the sacraments as the second mark of a true church, I would like to simply focus upon one of the ordinances (baptism), present the Reformed Baptist position on it (which I maintain is the biblical view), and, finally, make some points of application for us to consider.
Doctrine: What is Baptism and Who Should Be Baptized?
The text in view for this post is Luke 3:1-22, with special attention being paid to verse 3 and verses 7-14:
And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (Luke 3:3)
Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages. (Luke 3:7-14)
This passage (along with Matthew 3, Mark 1, and John 1) gives us the first glimpse of baptism in the New Testament. John the Baptist came proclaiming a baptism of repentance. This means that his baptism centered around a personal change of life. Lineage (for example, being circumcised due to Abrahamic ancestry) was of no importance to John’s baptism. It is reasonable to conclude that John the Baptist demanded personal repentance from those who would be baptized. There is no hint that John baptized the infants of those coming to him for baptism. John was a prophet of God who, just like Jeremiah in the Old Testament, called on the people to repent and submit to God. His baptism signified that every single person, regardless of family heritage, needed to personally repent. Again, consider Luke 3:8:
Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
John’s baptism demanded “fruits worthy of repentance” rather than family lineage. After John’s death, Jesus’ disciples continued to baptize (John 4:2). There is nothing to suggest that Jesus’ disciples had a different program for baptizing than John did. It was likely the same “baptism of repentance.” Only 36 months later, immediately prior to his ascension, Jesus gave what is known as the “Great Commission,” in which he commands baptism of disciples:
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew 28:18-20)
There is nothing to suggest that Jesus radically changed the baptism that John instituted, especially when one considers that Jesus was baptized by John and permitted his followers to continue the practice of baptism. The book of Acts recounts baptism following hearing the gospel and believing in Christ and repenting of sin. The Apostle Paul sheds further light on the ordinance of baptism by relating it to the believer’s death to sin and resurrection to newness of life through Christ (Romans 6:2-6). In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle again shows the connection between baptism and the believer’s death to sin and resurrection to newness of life via faith in Christ (Colossians 2:12). From these texts (and others) we see that baptism represents a believer’s repentance from sin, death to sin, and cleansing from sin, a raising to newness of life and purposing to walk in obedience thereafter.
Due to these passages, the Reformers developed a rich theology of baptism. The scope of this article will not permit us to consider all the aspects of baptism. However, one of the documents of the Reformers, the Second Helvetic Confession (1562), deals with baptism in depth. This confession tells us that “Baptism was instituted and consecrated by God.” It goes on:
First John baptized, who dipped Christ in the water in Jordan. From him it came to the apostles, who also baptized with water. The Lord expressly commanded them to preach the Gospel and to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). And in The Acts, Peter said to the Jews who inquired what they ought to do: “Be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37 f.). Hence by some baptism is called a sign of initiation for God’s people, since by it the elect of God are consecrated to God.
The confession gives the following explanation of what it means to be baptized:
Now to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be enrolled, entered, and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance of the sons of God; yes, and in this life to be called after the name of God; that is to say, to be called a son of God; to be cleansed also from the filthiness of sins, and to be granted the manifold grace of God, in order to lead a new and innocent life. Baptism, therefore, calls to mind and renews the great favor God has shown to the race of mortal men. For we are all born in the pollution of sin and are the children of wrath. But God, who is rich in mercy, freely cleanses us from our sins by the blood of his Son, and in him adopts us to be his sons, and by a holy covenant joins us to himself, and enriches us with various gifts, that we might live a new life. All these things are assured by baptism. For inwardly we are regenerated, purified, and renewed by God through the Holy Spirit and outwardly we receive the assurance of the greatest gifts in the water, by which also those great benefits are represented, and, as it were, set before our eyes to be beheld.
So far, most of what this confession has said would be in alignment with Reformed Baptist theology. However, the next section speaks of the obligation of baptism, a topic that does not make much sense from a paedo-baptist perspective. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Second Helvetic Confession is paedo-baptist.
THE OBLIGATION OF BAPTISM. Moreover, God also separates us from all strange religions and peoples by the symbol of baptism, and consecrates us to himself as his property. We, therefore, confess our faith when we are baptized, and obligate ourselves to God for obedience, mortification of the flesh, and newness of life. Hence, we are enlisted in the holy military service of Christ that all our life long we should fight against the world, Satan, and our own flesh. Moreover, we are baptized into one body of the Church, that with all members of the Church we might beautifully concur in the one religion and in mutual services. (Chapter 20)
Though this was not a Reformed Baptist document, it contains elements that only make sense from a credo-baptist perspective, in my opinion. It states that when we are baptized we confess our faith. An infant is not confessing anything when he is baptized. It goes on to say that we “obligate ourselves to God for obedience.” It would be unreasonable to tell a man who was baptized unknowingly that in his baptism he confessed his faith and obligated himself to obedience (we will see this when we consider John the Baptist’s comments). Upon baptism, the confession says that “we are enlisted in the holy military service of Christ.” This is one of my favorite phrases in the section. Baptism is a symbol of our willing enlistment into the Lord’s army, as it were.
Despite the comments regarding baptism as a confession of faith and obligation to duty, in the final section on baptism, the Second Helvetic Confession clearly condemns the credo-baptist position:
We condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that newborn infants of the faithful are to be baptized. For according to evangelical teaching, of such is the Kingdom of God, and they are in the covenant of God. Why, then, should the sign of God’s covenant not be given to them? Why should those who belong to God and are in his Church not be initiated by holy baptism? We condemn also the Anabaptists in the rest of their peculiar doctrines which they hold contrary to the Word of God. We therefore are not Anabaptists and have nothing in common with them.
It should be noted that the Reformed Baptists of the 17th century were not Anabaptists. The Reformed Baptists were careful to distance themselves from the Anabaptists in the preface to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Nevertheless, like the Anabaptists, Reformed Baptists did (and still do) “deny that newborn infants of the faithful are to be baptized.”
In its denunciation of the credo-baptist position, the Second Helvetic Confession lists the following arguments for infant baptism:
- The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these
- Children are in the covenant of God
- Since children are in the covenant, they should receive the sign of God’s covenant
- Children belong to God and are in his Church, therefore they should receive the sign of holy baptism, which is now the sign of God’s covenant
The whole paedo-baptist position hinges on the assumption that baptism has replaced circumcision as a sign of God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promise to Abraham. I believe, however, that the clear teaching of John in Luke 3 demonstrates that baptism is not to be based on family lineage, but personal repentance. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith defines baptism as follows:
Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life. (Chapter 29, Section 1)
As mentioned, we see repentance, death and resurrection, cleansing from sin, and purposing to walk in obedience in this definition. We also see baptism as a symbol of being “engrafted into” Christ, and by correlation, the church. This is a key aspect of baptism which forces the paedo-baptists to state that all children of believers are automatically “in Christ” and “in the church.”
For the sake of brevity, I want to simply point out three reasons why the Reformed Baptist position makes more sense than the paedo-baptist position. Two of these reasons are based on biblical arguments alone and the third combines biblical data and historical data. Three reasons for rejecting paedo-baptism are as follows:
- There is no command to baptize infants in the Bible
- The New Covenant is made up of the regenerate
- The connection between Jewish baptism, John’s baptism, and Christian baptism favors credo-baptism
1. There is no command to baptize infants in the the Bible
Search high and low, but you will never find a single command to baptize infants in the Bible. There is the command of Christ to make disciples and baptize (i.e. baptize disciples), the preaching in Acts which called on men and women to repent and be baptized, and the examples of people being baptized upon believing in the gospel. However, there is not one command to baptize infants in all of sacred Scripture. If baptism is the sign of the New Covenant which is to be applied to infants, one would expect there to be a command in Scripture. When God gave circumcision as the sign of his covenant with Abraham and his offspring (it was not with every Jewish parent and their seed, but between Abraham and his seed), he clearly indicated who was to receive it, even specifying that it should be given when the infant was eight days old (Genesis 17:9-14). However, there is not even the hint of any command to baptize infants in either the Old or New Testament. In Matthew 19:13-15, Jesus calls on us to not hinder children from coming to him, but there is not a single drop of water in those verses. In response to A.H. Strong’s arguments for credo-baptism, B.B. Warfield (a paedo-baptist) had to admit:
In this sense of the words, we may admit his first declaration — that there is no express command that infants should be baptized; and with it also his second — that there is in Scripture no clear example of the baptism of infants, that is, if we understand by this that there is no express record, reciting in so many words, that infants were baptized. (B.B. Warfield, Studies in Theology)
Nearly 200 years before B.B Warfield considered the topic, Benjamin Keach asked this very question in his catechism derived from the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith:
Q. 98. Are the infants of such as are professing believers to be baptized?
A. The infants of such as are professing believers are not to be baptized; because there is neither command nor example in the Holy Scriptures, or certain consequence from them, to baptize such.
This argument alone leaves little room for defending the paedo-baptist position without imposing a system upon the Bible from the outside. But there are more arguments for the credo-baptist position.
2. The New Covenant is made up of the regenerate
The paedo-baptists argue that baptism is the sign of the New Covenant. They further assert that since circumcision was applied to the children of members of the Old Covenant, baptism should be applied to the children of members of the New Covenant. However, it should be noted that one was to be circumcised based solely on his descent from Abraham, regardless of his personal faith, even though God demanded faith and obedience from all the Jews. Paedo-baptists agree that baptism is only to be applied to adults in the case of their profession of faith. For example, even in a paedo-baptist church, a 30-year-old man who was never baptized could not appeal to his lineage to be baptized. He could not say, “But my parents are Christians and simply forgot to apply the sign to me.” However, in the Old Covenant, circumcision was to be applied to children and adults, irrespective of if they had personal faith in God (Genesis 17:13-14, cf. Joshua 5:1-9).
One of the new aspects of the New Covenant is that it is made up of the regenerate. The church is to be a regenerate body. Jeremiah 31 promises the New Covenant and describes it in a way that is different from the Old Covenant:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
The New Covenant community is to be made up of those who have God’s law written “in their hearts.” It is to be made up of those who have been born again (John 3). It is constituted of those who have been “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). It is true that false converts will sometimes join the visible church, but such impostors are to be removed when their sin manifests itself clearly (see 1 Corinthians 5 and the message on the third mark of a true church). It is not our job to search out false converts, but it certainly does not follow that we are to willingly admit members (viz. infants) who have given us no reason to believe they are regenerate other than their DNA.
3. The connection between Jewish baptism, John’s baptism, and Christian baptism favors credo-baptism
There are several more arguments in favor of credo-baptism, but the final one I would like to present is one that I have not often heard explained. It has to do with the historical background to baptism in first-century Judaism. Christianity is inextricably linked to Judaism. Despite the fact that the paedo-baptist Reformers viewed baptism as linked to the Jewish practice of circumcision, I believe they failed to look at the specific practices of the Jewish people to whom John’s baptism, and three short years later Christian baptism, was applied. Let us briefly consider why an understanding of Jewish baptism favors the credo-baptist position.
When a Gentile converted to Judaism, he had to do three things: be circumcised, offer a sacrifice, and be baptized. While various baptisms and sacrifices were required on an on-going basis, God’s Law only required circumcision as the initial act of the Gentile convert. Nevertheless (and this is historical data, not biblical data), it became the practice of the Jews to require an initial sacrifice and an initial act of baptism for converts to Judaism. Glen Mill explains:
In order for the proselyte to enjoy full citizenship and equal rights, he was required to conform to the rite of circumcision and take the baptismal bath. They thus accepted the entire Mosaic law as much as did the native Israelites. Added to this, the proselyte was required to bring a special sacrifice as a testimony to his acceptance of the one God of Israel. (Glen W. Mell, “Jewish Proselyte Baptism and Its Relation to Christian Baptism,” 1938)
Concerning the practice of Jewish proselyte baptism, Mell continues:
Regulations which would demand of the Jew that he bathe in order to be cleansed and regain his levitical purity, would certainly be followed by a baptism for Gentiles becoming Jews. If any contact whatever with pollution would cause the necessity for meeting the requirements for purification, then surly one who had lived in heathen pollution, and by the very fact of being a heathen, was impure, would be required to comply with a process of complete purification before he could become fully an Israelite. It was thus required of every Gentile who became a Jew to submit to the rite of purification from heathen pollution by immersion. (Glen W. Mell, “Jewish Proselyte Baptism and Its Relation to Christian Baptism,” 1938)
F. Gavin concurs and elaborates on the meaning of Jewish baptism:
As the rite of bathing after cohabitation or nocturnal pollution was, in the period after the destruction of the Temple, regarded by the Rabbis both as a purification, and as a kind of consecration for intercourse with the sacred words of the Law, so was the bathing of proselytes considered at once a purification from heathenism and an initiation or consecration of the convert before his admission to the people of God. (F. Gavin, “The Jewish Antecedents of the Christian Sacraments,” 1928)
What is the significance of all of this? The point is this: when John the Baptist came proclaiming a “baptism of repentance” (Luke 3:3) he was calling on Jews of the purest bloodlines to submit to a practice that was reserved for Gentiles making a profession of faith in the one true God. He came declaring the message of the coming Christ, demanding all people to repent of their sins and forsake any reliance upon their physical connection to Abraham (symbolized by circumcision). It was a baptism which would have no doubt humbled the proud Pharisees—men who took great pride in their connection with Abraham. It was a baptism which called on Jewish men and women to admit that they had as much need of cleansing from sin as the Gentiles did. It was a baptism which was based on personal repentance and obedience, irrespective of familial connections. Therefore, it fits the historical data to conclude that the baptism that John instituted and which Jesus accepted and applied further, was a baptism that built upon the practice of Jewish baptism for Gentiles. As such, it makes little sense that all of the sudden the practice would be altered to be applied to infants based on their family bloodlines—the very thing which John the Baptist condemned in Luke 3:8.
We will now look at two points of application as it relates to baptism:
- Obedience and Christian Baptism
- Our Children and Baptism
1. Obedience and Christian Baptism
John the Baptist’s message of baptism centered upon repentance. It was a “baptism of repentance” (Luke 3:3). Benjamin Keach defined repentance as follows:
Q. 94. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.
John demanded a changed heart and a changed life from his hearers. At the very least, he required a sincere acknowledgement of one’s sin, need for forgiveness, and desire to obey. This is demonstrated by three facts. First, Luke calls his baptism a “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” Second, he questioned the motives of those coming for baptism, wondering if they were coming because they saw the wrath of God that was coming because of their personal sin (Luke 3:7). And third, he gave practical application as it related to obedience to those who came to be baptized (Luke 3:10-14). In further support of the aforementioned connection between John’s baptism and Christian baptism, Luke uses the same language to describe John’s baptism and Jesus’ commission to evangelize:
John’s baptism: “And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Luke 3:3)
Jesus’ commission to evangelize: “And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47)
When you compare the commission to evangelize in Luke’s gospel with the one in Matthew’s gospel, you see that baptism is explicitly linked to the message of repentance and remission of sins (Matthew 28:18-20). That passage in Matthew is explicit in the connection between baptism and obedience:
Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew 28:20)
Those who are to be baptized are entering into a life of obedience to all things that Jesus has commanded. This means that those who are to be baptized should be made aware of the requirement of obedience in the Christian life. It should be noted, that the baptisms in the New Testament seem to come rather quickly after a profession of faith. However, what we often fail to see is that the profession of faith often came after much teaching on the truth of the gospel and the requirement for obedience. The conversion of the Philippian jailer is a good example:
Then he [the jailer] called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway. And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house. (Acts 16:29-34)
At first glace, it may seem that Paul gave a two minute “gospel presentation” and then baptized the jailer and his family. However, note the phrase “and they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house.” By considering another account in the book of Acts, we may readily discern what were the main features of Paul’s talk with the lost man and his family. The New England Primer had a carving for each letter of the alphabet which included a sentence to help children learn the letter. The letter J had this saying: “The judgment made Felix afraid.” This phrase was based off of Paul’s encounter with Felix:
And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee. (Acts 24:25)
Paul discussed righteousness. This no doubt included the righteous demands of God’s Law upon mankind. This no doubt included what God required of Felix. It would have demanded that Felix put away of his personal sin, something which would require self-control, or temperance, the second of Paul’s main points. Finally, Paul spoke of judgment to come, just as the John the Baptist did. By considering this, we can infer that Paul likewise spoke to the Philippian jailer of these things. Perhaps what should draw our attention isn’t that the jailer and others were baptized so quickly after their profession of faith, but that they professed the faith after it was explained to them by the Apostle Paul! There will inevitably always be some like Simon the Magician in Acts 8, who will claim Christ without truly desiring obedience, but most of the unconverted will probably be like Felix: when presented with the true call for repentance and obedience, they will balk at the call to confess and be baptized.
Today, people are baptized left and right without hearing anything about the place of obedience in the Christian life. A man may say, “But that is adding works to the gospel! Men only need to believe in Jesus to be saved. Baptism should only be about whether or not someone believes in Jesus!” I reject that the demand for obedience is adding works to the gospel. Repentance and faith are evangelical graces that God freely gives to the elect, but they are requirements nonetheless. Without repentance, a man will perish. If I cannot reason logically with someone who denies the need to emphasize obedience when it comes to baptism, then I will be content to point to the example of the great Baptizer, John the Baptist, and find my opponent silenced by the intensely practical place obedience played in his “baptism of repentance.” Luke records three groups of people coming for baptism: the crowds, the publicans, and the soldiers. The focus of their questions concerning baptism is this: what shall I do? John tells them to obey God’s Law, essentially. But he does not simply say it in a general way. He gave practical ways that God demanded obedience to each group of people. To the crowds he instructed them to show true charity for others and share with the needy (v. 11). To the tax collectors he demanded that they stop stealing from others (v. 13). And to the soldiers he commanded that they no longer extort money and use their position to oppress others (v. 14). Those unwilling to embrace obedience to God are neglecting the baptism they are claiming to desire.
In our day, we might make application of this truth by highlighting the demands of obedience to those interested in the things of the Lord. A young man dilly-dallying around with his girlfriend of five years who wants to be baptized, and asks, “What shall I do?,” should be told by a John the Baptist figure, “Marry your girlfriend, lead and provide for her, and raise up children.” A woman climbing the corporate ladder while her children are being educated and cared for by the state, should be told by a John the Baptist figure: “Resign from your job and keep house.” A statesman should be told by a John the Baptist figure: “Govern and legislate according to the Law-Word of God, not man’s fallen and corrupt philosophies. Claim the name of Christ in public as you do in private.” A husband should be told by a John the Baptist figure: “Love your wife, take seriously your charge to care for and nurture her, stop wasting your time on television, and recreation, and worthless pursuits.” A wife should be told by a John the Baptist figure: “Submit to and honor your husband, for this is what Christ requires of women coming to baptism.” A parent should be told by a John the Baptist figure: “Train up your children in the way they should go. Take seriously the injunction to instruct the next generation.” A child should be told: “Obey your parents. Share with your siblings.” If you are to be a Christian you will be expected to suffer when wronged and choose to allow others to enjoy things instead of yourself. Child: if you want to follow Jesus, know that he will demand of you your whole life and your complete obedience. You will never obey perfectly, but Jesus demands your obedience in every area of life. Jesus commands us to share with others and bear patiently with the wrongs of others. If you cannot stand the thought of giving up your rights (“my” toy, “my” plate, “my” seat) in order to bless others, then you need to think more about the obedience that is tied to baptism. How many in our day who have been baptized, and have taken the name of Christ upon themselves with the moniker of Christian, would have done so if they were presented with the demands for obedience prior to their baptism?
Another objection may be raised: Is this not seeking to prevent people from being baptized? Answer: only inasmuch that Jesus sought to prevent people from haphazardly entering into Christian discipleship:
For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace. So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:28-33)
No one should enter the Christian faith haphazardly. Jesus presents the entrance into discipleship as a thought-out, serious deliberation. Concerning the Jewish baptism mentioned earlier, the Jews would ask the Gentiles if they understood all the hardships Israel was facing. Only when the Gentile was fully aware of what his baptism would mean, was he immersed. F. Gavin comments:
One who comes to be made a proselyte in the present time is to be asked, “Why dost thou come to be made a proselyte? Dost thou not know that at this time Israel is afflicted, buffeted. humiliated and harried, and that sufferings and sore trials come upon them?”
The record of the New Testament argues in favor of baptizing upon a profession of faith, rather than waiting long periods of time to seek to determine if someone was truly converted. At the same time, the teaching of the New Testament leads one to believe that the obligation connected to baptism has been severely neglected in our generation. It matters little if one waits one year or ten years: if no obedience is required, then a man could go centuries before denying Christ. The requirement for baptism is a profession of faith in Christ and desire to walk in obedience to the Lord’s commands. The requirement for those preaching the message of the baptism of repentance and remission of sins is to make known what it is to have faith in Christ (as Paul did in Acts 24) and walk in obedience to the Lord’s commands.
This leads us nicely into our final point of application.
2. Our Children and Baptism
In closing, let us consider baptism and our children. My point of contention is this: The standard for baptism as it relates to children is too shallow in our day, but this is only because our standard for baptism as it relates to adults is too shallow in our day. As I have argued, children are not to be baptized based on their parentage. What then should be the grounds of their baptism? It should be the same as adults: their profession of faith and commitment to walk in obedience to Christ. Remember how the Baptist Confession worded it:
Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance. (Chapter 29, Section 2)
Those who profess repentance, faith, and obedience are the proper subjects of this ordinance. So far, so good. However, there are at least three common objections to this standard as it relates to baptizing children:
- Children often simply do things to please their parents
- Children are not capable of thinking deliberately about baptism and obedience
- It is unwise to baptize a young person because they might express rebellion later on
Concerning the first objection, let it be well noted that while children may be prone to do things to please their parents, they are tenfold as prone to do things to please themselves, as the Scripture tells us that “folly is bound up in their heart.” Furthermore, a parent should not be pressuring anyone (child or adult) to be baptized. Remember Jesus’ warning about haphazardly and quickly entering into Christian discipleship? It was the Ethiopian eunuch, not Phillip, who suggested baptism after learning of Christ, faith, and obedience (Acts 8:36). Finally, if honoring one’s parents plays a factor in one’s desire to obey Christ, such a thing should not be frowned upon. We teach our children to do as we say, follow our counsel, and listen to our advice. Shall we then doubt their sincerity when they do that very thing? Shall they be penalized because they were given Christian parents who have set before them the beauty of the gospel and the gracious salvation of the Lord?
Regarding the second objection, I fear we have severely underestimated a child’s ability to comprehend the demands of the gospel. The gospel is magnificent in its simplicity and its profundity. A childlike faith is all that is needed, though this faith is not childish or vain. “It would be a good thing for us all if we had never stopped being boys and girls but had added to all the excellencies of a child the virtues of a man” (Spurgeon). The preacher of the gospel may say, as Spurgeon did, “If I am understood by poor people, by servant girls, by children, I am sure I can be understood by others.” Because of this view, we can be prone to view children as unlikely to be converted. But why should it surprise us that God would save a young sinner anymore than he would save an old sinner? Incidentally, we are prone to doubt the conversion of children:
Another bad result is that the conversion of children is not believed. Certain suspicious people always file their teeth a bit when they hear of a newly-converted child: they will have a bite at him if they can. They very rightly insist that these children should be carefully examined before they are baptized and admitted into the church. However, they are wrong in insisting that only in exceptional instances are they to be received. We quite agree with them as to the care to be exercised, but it should be the same in all cases, and neither more nor less in the cases of children. (C.H. Spurgeon, Spiritual Parenting, p. 13-14)
A child able to think about these issues seriously is able to consider the demands of the gospel. I am not arguing for the baptism of our children willy-nilly, nor am I suggesting we should expect a toddler to grasp these things. However, as our children grow and reach the age of ten, eleven, twelve―the age when Jesus amazed those in the temple, Jonathan Edwards entered Yale, and John Stuart Mill studied scholastic philosophy―we should have little concern that what prevents them from conversion is mental ability. In fact, I believe a child can be saved much earlier than ten. The age is not so much the concern, but the standard: a profession of faith, repentance, and obedience.
Finally, concerning the third objection: “It is unwise to baptize a young person because they might express rebellion later on.” This is no doubt true; but it is equally true of adults. This possibility did not prevent the apostles from baptizing people, some of whom did fall away (1 John 2:19). Of all the people in our community that may in the course of time come to express a desire for baptism, whom should we expect to have the clearest understanding of the demands of Christian discipleship? Think of all those people living out in the world, willfully ignorant of the truths of Scripture. Think of one of them hearing the gospel message and expressing a desire for baptism. Now consider your own children. If you are doing a halfway decent job of training your children and conducting family worship, your child will know more of theology by the time he is ten than half of the pastors in our land do. So again I ask: Of all the people in our community that may in the course of time come to express a desire for baptism, whom should we expect to have the clearest understanding of the demands of Christian discipleship? Would it not be our own children? Would it not be those to whom we have labored to teach the gospel, not for an hour, or for a day, or for a week, but for years and years? I submit that it is in fact our children who we may have the most reason to believe understand the gospel’s demands for faith and obedience.
By holding forth the gospel and the demands of discipleship represented in baptism, we are presenting our children with a realistic picture of the Christian life. Those children that truly desire baptism should not be hindered, just as those adults that truly desire baptism should not be prevented. Our children who come to profess faith, repentance, and obedience, should be received with joy, not doubt. I do not suggest making baptism some trite thing, for that would obscure its meaning. But nor do I suggest making it an elite ritual only for the advanced in wisdom or years, for that would also obscure its meaning. By not hindering our children from coming to baptism (when they are trying to come) we are encouraging their maturity, faith, and commitment to Christ, both our Lord and theirs. I would also rather have a child that professes faith, repentance, and obedience, be baptized in the church of his parents, than in the church he finds himself in when he has finally become an “adult.”
The church of Jesus Christ is to accept the two ordinances that the Lord instituted for her. Baptism, as one of those ordinances, is extremely important to take seriously, ponder, and apply. It represents our death to sin, remission of sins, and newness of life in Christ. It is our willing entry into the Lord’s army. It is to be applied to those who profess repentance, faith, and obedience. The connection between obedience and baptism that John the Baptist proclaimed ought to be preached again in our day in order that Christian discipleship would not be viewed as a trifle to be entered lightheartedly.
[One final note: While I am in favor of baptizing young people, given a rigorous gospel presentation and cost-counting, I am not in favor of rebaptizing those who have once been baptized based on profession of faith. In other words, I agree that those who have been baptized as infants ought to be rebaptized. But I do not believe someone should be rebaptized as a twenty-year-old after he realizes that his baptism when he was nine-years-old was not “genuine.”]