Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Infant Baptism? (Q&A)

Q:  [In response to our teaching, “The Washing of Water with the Word”:]  I'm going to get into trouble here, but here goes anyway....please notice that the verse you mention says that the Messiah does the cleansing by the washing of water with the word.  We don't do it.  Therefore it is a gift, just like our name from our parents.  So there is no need for someone to wait until they are "ready" for baptism.  It is a gift that we cannot by our own power or will do anything to be "ready" to receive.  Moral of my story is --get your kids baptized and don't wait another day.  –Stephanie K.

A:  Thanks for your enthusiasm in defending infant baptism--a long-held and widely practiced tradition of the Church.  But this tradition ignores a key component of the original idea of baptism:  that receiving the word of God—being “cleansed...by his word” (Eph. 5:26)—requires being able to understand that word.  Traditional churches themselves admit to the inadequacy of infant baptism by their practice of confirmation, a rite mentioned nowhere in the Bible.  Having teenagers confirm or accept their baptisms is a recognition that infant baptism is incomplete without the conscious and believing participation of the one being baptized.  And that's exactly the point.  Baptism is the outward, public response to an inner faith:  the sign of a conscious repentance of sin and a decision to follow Jesus.  This decision brings an inner cleansing (Acts 15:9), while baptism completes the process with an outer washing:  “the outward sign of an inward grace,” as Augustine of Hippo put it.  There is just no other way to make sense of the Biblical description of this rite as a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," unless there is an actual repentance on the part of the person being baptized (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3, Acts 13:24, 19:4).  This requires a conscious appeal to God (1 Pet. 3:21) by faith (Col. 2:12).  Infants are completely incapable of doing these things.

Ancient Judaism and the earliest Church, like those who practice believers' baptism today, took a different approach to infants, in a ceremony known as dedication.  This is what Jesus himself experienced as an infant:  he was taken to the Temple, not to be baptized, but to be dedicated to the Lord (Luke 2:21-24).  To be dedicated simply means to be set aside for the purposes of the Lord (sometimes translated "to be made holy" or "sanctified").  This is the language Paul uses when discussing the children of a believer married to a non-believer (1 Cor. 7:14).  He does not say that the children have been baptized and are therefore saved, but rather that they have been sanctified, in other words, set aside for the Lord (dedicated), exactly the same language he uses about the unbelieving spouse in that same verse.  The children of believers are dedicated, that is, set aside for God by the believing parents until they come to maturity and are able to make their own decision about following Jesus. 

Look, for example, at how Jesus himself treated children.  The Bible never says he baptized them.  Rather, he blessed them while laying hands on them (Matt. 19:13, Mark 10:16, Luke 18:16).  This refers to the Jewish and Biblical custom of blessing someone in the name of God, a kind of prayer that God would do something good in their lives:  “May God bless you...”

But the “cleansing” of God’s Word required for baptism requires a conscious acceptance and understanding of that Word.  As the apostle Paul puts it:  "How will they believe in him whom they have not heard?  And how will they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14).  These are not things an infant would understand.  As Paul also says in that same place:  "For whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.  How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?" (Eph. 10:13,14).  Appealing to God on the basis of conscious belief is essential to salvation. 

You are right that the cleansing by Messiah in preparation for baptism is a gift.  But it is a gift that must be consciously received, whether it be through teenage confirmation or believer's baptism or in some other way.  But before that conscious participation is possible, the Bible instructs us to dedicate our children to the Lord (Luke 2:22, 1 Cor. 7:14).  This is, in fact, all that traditional infant baptism can offer until it’s confirmed by a conscious decision later in life.  

(For more on this topic, see the index category Baptism.)

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