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The Mode and Meaning of Baptism

Christians have not agreed on the proper mode of baptism. Many believe that the only proper way to baptize someone is by the full submersion of the body under water. They typically argue that baptizo means immerse and they also appeal to Romans 6 as a watertight (pardon the pun) argument proving the need for full immersion.

In response, we may wish to ask whether we do our theology by etymology or by looking at the rich tapestry of symbolism in the Scriptures to come up with a theology of baptism that may cause us to realize the case is not nearly as obvious as some may think. One could do a study on Hebrews 9:11–22 and look up all of the Old Testament references that the author calls baptisms.

The New Testament does not give us the precise manner in which baptism must be administered. As B.B. Warfield has noted, “We may search the New Testament in vain if we are seeking minute instructions how we are to perform baptism” (Selected Shorter Writings. 2 vols. ((Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1970)), 1:329). The philological facts simply do not allow us to argue that “to baptize” equals “to immerse.”

Baptism is a washing with water (1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 5:26; Heb. 10:22). This washing represents our cleansing by the blood of Christ. The way in which we wash (i.e., baptize) allows for some degree of latitude on the amount of water used. The Scriptures speak of complete cleansing in terms of just the feet being washed (Jn. 13:10), or the hands only (Mk. 7:2), or being “sprinkled” (Ezek. 36:25). Thus, according to Warfield:

It is not the amount of water which we employ but the purpose for which we employ it that is of [significance]. In Jesus Christ we are washed clean of all our sins. He has given us a sign that our sins are washed away and a pledge that we shall be clean in him. Any application of water which will symbolize this cleansing will serve as such a sign and seal. (ibid)

Baptism “purifies.” One does not sink down into water and “drown” to capture this. Paul speaks once of “being baptized into his death” (Rom. 6:3). But to reflect on immersion as a symbol of burial is peculiar. You are not buried in water; nor is going under water for a second or two a proper reflection of burial. Christ was entombed, not put under. He was placed in a tomb on a slab, not lowered into a grave.

This is why I am perplexed by the dogged insistence by some that a Christian, who has been washed spiritually, and possesses all that baptism signifies, cannot come to the Lord’s table because they have not been immersed. To bar someone from communion because they are sinning against the Lord willfully in a certain area is one thing; but to forbid a Christian from coming to the table because they did not get immersed (when the evidence for immersion is so inconclusive) seems absurd.

Warfield was right to say, therefore, “He who goes to the NT in hope of obtaining exact information on how to baptize, is doomed to quick disappointment. And he who affirms any particular way of baptizing, that it, and it alone, is valid baptism, has an immense burden of proof resting on his shoulders” (Selected Shorter Writings. 2 vols. ((Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1970)), 2:335). Should we not exercise some moderation and humility in an area where the NT seems to demand for such?

The symbolism of baptism in relation to the work of the Holy Spirit is also important for our doctrine of baptism. In both the Old and New Testaments, the Spirit is spoken of frequently in terms of sprinkling and/or pouring (Isa. 32:15; 44:3; 52:15; Ezek. 36:25; 39:29; Joel 2:28–29; Zech. 12:10; Acts 2:33; 10:44–45). The words, “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5; Matt. 3:11) reflect the pouring of the Spirit (ekcheō, Acts 2:17, 33; cf. Rom. 5:5).

Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, the living water from the heavenly places, as he applies his cleansing blood to us. We now have access to the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 10:19–22). Complete submersion does not provide the picture of this event in the way that pouring does. Pouring may best capture the symbolism of the Spirit being poured out by Christ upon his people. Luke 12:50 and Mark 10:38 also confirm this point. The baptism Christ undergoes is his death on the cross, where the wrath of God was poured out upon him like a flood (Isa. 51:17, 22; Luke 22:42; Ps. 88:7). Pouring, not submersion, highlights that when we are baptized, God’s waters of judgment are passing over us and we are brought into the realm of salvation through Christ’s death.

Finally, if Paul meant immersion by using “baptized,” then he did a very good job to confuse his readers. For example, 1 Corinthians 10:2 refutes the contention that baptizo always means immersion, unless the cloud can immerse. Of course, the Egyptians were immersed; and while Noah and his family were sprinkled, the wicked were immersed, too. Central to Pauline baptism is the idea of incorporation. The Israelites were incorporated (baptized) into Moses; we are incorporated (baptized) into Christ (1 Cor. 12:13) by the washing of regeneration (Tit. 3:5).

In theology, the Bible is our primary lexicon. Baptizo means grafted into, incorporated into, and “washed.” Our washing is our incorporation. If there is no washing then there is no incorporation. Our incorporation through baptism means we have been publicly brought out of the realm of condemnation and death and brought into the new world of the Spirit.

A Brief Vindication for Baptizing Infants

The make–up of the church includes people of all ages, races, genders, languages, backgrounds, etc. The church is not a club for adults only. This would be tragic since children can and do teach us so much about the Christian life.

Christianity isn’t insensitive to the place of babies and children in the visible church (Matt. 19:14). I am, of course, aware that a vast number of fine Christian people do not agree on this topic. Presbyterians have internal disagreements among themselves and even Baptists have internal disagreements among themselves, as well, on the precise identity of the children of believers. Without wishing to give a major defense of paedobaptism, I do hope to make an argument for why we should consider children as members of the visible church, according to the judgment of charity, and so extend to them the name “Christian,” which is based purely on the promise of God to be their God. At bottom, this is a debate over whether God still includes the children of believers in the assembly (Heb. qahal; Gk. ekklesia) of God’s people.

Baptism really establishes in a public, visible, manner, a covenant relationship since it is a naming ceremony. A love relationship, involving promises and responsibilities, blessings and curses, is begun by a gracious God, who must always begin a covenantal relationship with his people. But the responsibilities, promises, and threatenings are not tied solely to the individual. They are corporate responsibilities, promises, and threatenings. Baptism is baptism into Christ, and all that that means (i.e., baptized into his body).

For those holding to paedobaptism, we believe that God has chosen to identify himself with our children. In other words, our children are not, fundamentally speaking, our children. They are, through baptism, God’s children. Baptism is an adoption ceremony, whereby the child baptized is publicly brought into God’s kingdom, his family.

Baptism is not a sign of my child’s faith (or even a sign of any adult’s faith), though it is possible and, we pray, likely that an infant child may have the seed of faith. Rather, baptism is a sign that my child must look to, and embrace by faith until he or she dies – or else the baptism becomes a curse instead of a blessing. Circumcision was not a sign of faith, but a sign that faith embraced or looked to (cf. Rom. 4:11). Baptism represents Christ (Gal. 3:27), in whom our faith must rest. In baptism, God takes the initiative with our children. He speaks favor to them in baptism (“You are my child, whom I love”) and they are to respond in faith to his “wooing.” Ideally, there should never be a day when they have not known God as their covenant Lord. And for many children raised in a covenant context, they have “boring” testimonies. They do not know precisely when they received the Spirit of adoption, but they do know they love Christ and trust in him for their salvation.

Crucially, as a parent, when the waters of baptism are poured upon the head of our child(ren), we are confronted with the sobering, yet glorious, reality that we are raising God’s child for his glory. Because my covenant children belong to God and Christ, in terms of the nature of the visible church, the stakes are high. Yes, we have the promise (Acts 2:39), but baptism is also a solemn reminder to those who do not respond in faith, hope, and love to the God who set his seal upon them. The seal of baptism is more permanent than a tattoo, because the seal has eternal consequences, whether for good or bad. Baptism warns to parents and the local church that they cannot take it easy or presume upon the grace of God. They are, after all, invested with the responsibility of raising God’s holy child (1 Cor. 7:14). And so parents, as well as church members, must be, like the pioneer of our faith (Heb. 12:2), examples to children of what it means to live by faith. In the same way, children can be an example to parents of the life of faith in terms of their natural dependence.

The above explains why a public baptism is so important: both parents and the congregation make vows in public before God. In baptism, God visibly speaks to us words of grace and we, in turn, respond. That is the covenantal orientation one finds in Scripture. Now if the reality that you are raising God’s child causes you to be lax in your approach to family worship, corporate worship, nurture, admonition, teaching, discipline, etc., regarding your children, then you may not have an adequate understanding of the God of the Bible. A promise from God incites us to faithfulness; it does not make a true child of God casual.

The covenantal dynamic that parents and children enter into is one whereby rejecting Christ, who is offered in baptism, brings those who reject such grace under a divine curse. That is why in the Lord’s Supper you can eat and drink judgment upon yourself if done in unbelief (1 Cor. 11:29). Thus, infant baptism is God taking the initiative to preach the gospel, and calling the child, for the rest of their life to repent, believe, and live for the glory of the one into whose name they have been incorporated or else they face the terrifying reality that covenant breakers will face a stricter judgment than those who never received such blessings. Parents must not be ignorant of such things. For to whom much is given, much is expected.

Raising children raises certain questions for us to consider in terms of our baptismal theology. Going back to the Old Testament, we may ask: Did Isaac possess any spiritual advantages by receiving the sign of circumcision? Was God’s goodness to Abraham heightened because of his goodness also to his son, Isaac? In other words, does our “so great a salvation” terminate upon the individual believer, or does our salvation include a promise to our children? (see Acts 2:39, where the structure reflects Gen. 17:1–8).

Is God less good to our children than he was to Abraham’s? If Isaac was better off for receiving circumcision (a spiritual sign, signifying the righteousness that comes by faith), are our children better or worse off for receiving no sign? Was the sign given by God intended to help covenant children or hinder them? In reality, denying our children a covenant sign denies them a blessing from God. If we believe that covenant signs are given graciously by God to his people, then we must affirm that God is, therefore, less gracious to the children of believers after the resurrection than he was before, if we reject paedobaptism. But if we accept that God grants the sign to children of the covenant because it helps them, then there appears to be no good reason why he would excommunicate children from the church when Christ ascended in glory.

The argument that the New Covenant includes only those who know the Lord is not an argument against paedobaptism. Paedobaptists generally hold that, according to the judgment of charity, based on the promise of God, our children are part of the church and to be regarded as Christian until they show a departure from the faith. We are not saying baptism does something automatically, as Rome asserts, but rather that baptism provides the proper context for their covenant nurture in the ways of God and seals their identity until they prove otherwise. Repentance and faith is the expected outcome of such a context in which they are trained from the womb to be worshippers of God (Psalm 22:9–10), like the Psalmist who said, “Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you” (Psalm 71:6).

In addition, how can we please God or do a truly good work? It must be done by faith, for whatever is not of faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). Paul commands children to obey their parents in everything. Obedience to this command would be a good work. Why? Because obedience to parents “pleases the Lord” (Col. 3:20). Paul addresses children as Christians, and expects them to live accordingly. Paul does not hedge or qualify his language. He simply tells children they please God when they obey their parents. Should not the indicative–imperative (i.e., what God has done versus our response) model apply to our children when it comes to obedience? Or do we want to argue that the obedience of children pleases the Lord even though it is not done in faith by the Spirit?

When our young children sin against each other and need to ask for forgiveness, do we have grounds to say: “Since God has forgiven you, should you not forgive your brother?” (see Eph. 4:32). Or should we simply say, “Forgive, because it is the right thing to do”? There is no indicative in this model, so the argument would be a sort of natural law principle on what is “fitting” to do in a given situation. Allow me to press this a bit more in the realm of assurance. When our children sin we should:

Rebuke them and explain to them their sin;

Ask them to repent and pray to their Father in heaven for forgiveness.

On what grounds can I assure any of my children that they are forgiven? (1 Jn. 1:9). Or are they forgiven? We are not told to infallibly know the decree of God. We are told to embrace God’s promises, as revealed in his Word. When my children look by faith to Jesus for forgiveness, it is no different than them looking by faith to their baptism for assurance of forgiveness. Both involve looking to Christ, whether for the four year–old or the thirteen year–old. The same applies to the elderly believer.

But if my children are not baptized, if they do not belong to the visible church, if they do not bear the name Christian, then I do not know what grounds I have for praying with them to our Father in heaven. Can they even sing “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know”? I also do not know on what grounds I can tell them they please God when they are obedient to his commands. I also do not know on what grounds I can assure them of forgiveness if they are pagans who are without hope and without God until they are (later) brought into the covenant community by baptism. It must be a strange world for a child to live in when they are told, on the one hand, their sins are forgiven when they repent, but, on the other hand, told they cannot yet be baptized because they are not old enough.

In the end, God incorporates people into the visible church on earth through baptism into the name of Christ. When the seal of the Spirit comes to those who have been baptized, whether before baptism or after, there is the beautiful symmetry between what is seen and what is unseen. Ultimately, whether for children or adults, the visible sign needs to meet with the invisible reality. We baptize children because of God’s promise; but also, we baptize because it allows us to live as families in which there is a consistent dynamic of repentance and faith towards our covenant–keeping God in whom we must put our trust, including the adults as well as the children.

By Mark Jones

The Rev. Dr. Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden Universiteit) has been the Minister at Faith Vancouver since 2007. He is also Research Associate in the Faculty of Theology at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. Dr. Jones is the author of several books, including Knowing Christ, God Is, Living For God (2020 Crossway).