Christian churches have practiced Jesus’ example and command that its members be baptized from the earliest years (Matt. 3:13–17; 28:19). As a rite of initiation into the Church of Jesus Christ, it is understood as a basic step to discipleship and living for Christ. For this reason, in many cultures believers leaving another religion to putting their faith in Christ are rejected by their families and persecuted when they receive baptism. Despite this common understanding, the meaning, mode and subjects of those to be baptized have been debated among the Church’s various branches. Often because of a different understanding of the meaning of the sign of baptism, this relates to its subjects and mode, those debating the subject talk past one another without mutual understanding. It must be acknowledged that being finite beings, no one has complete and infallible understanding of God’s Word. We remain sinners who now “see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12). Therefore, we need the Father to give us “a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him” (Eph. 1:17) through the leading of the Spirit (John 16:13; Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:18), “that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12), and the teaching of fellow believers to help us in our deeper understanding. Thus, we submit to one another for the collective wisdom of the Church on this matter (Eph. 5:21). It is in this spirit that I have presented what is commonly called a Reformed, Presbyterian, or Covenantal view of the sacrament fully supported by canonical Scripture.
There are many from a credobaptist view of baptism that think the Reformed view of baptism is simply adopted from Roman Catholicism and that we have conformed to “traditions of men,” custom, superstition, and even satanic deception! However, we hold to the Holy Scriptures as our final authority and seek to demonstrate that our position is fully in conformity with Scripture biblically and theologically. In addition, devoted believers throughout Church history have found these doctrines to be true.
One of the doctrines emphasized in the Reformation is the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture. This means that although some parts of Scripture are difficult to understand (2 Pet. 3:16), and take much study (Acts 17:11; 1 Tim. 4:6, 16; 2 Tim. 2:15), what is absolutely clear is the way of salvation, even for the young and very simple (Deut. 29:29; 30:10–14; Ps. 119:105, 130).2 For example, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). However, as with the mysterious doctrine of the Trinity, the words “infant baptism” is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, nor is there an example of parents bringing their child for baptism. But infant baptism is not, therefore, an unbiblical doctrine. Daniel Hyde explains:
Infant baptism is a biblical doctrine because it is a “good and necessary consequence” of the entirety of scriptural teaching. This means that the Scriptures are like a jigsaw puzzle. One piece by itself does not give a picture of the whole puzzle, yet when many individual pieces are put together, a doctrine is necessarily taught.3
Just because a doctrine is deduced out of “good and necessary consequence” or inference does not mean that it is less true than if it has been explicitly spelled out. We see examples of such doctrines that are not specifically stated concerning the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, attending public worship on Sunday, church membership, tithing under the new covenant, family prayer, whether a Christian may serve as a magistrate, sacraments officiated by a minister/elder, and who should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper.4 The demand for explicit statements on many doctrines held by orthodox Christians is what has led to the development of numerous cults and heresies. They contend we use unscriptural terms, although they also use them, such as “unbegotten” and “unoriginate” as the heretics Arius and Eunomius’s5 favorite term for God. But as Church Father Gregory of Nazianzus pointed out concerning the biblical interpretation of the Fathers, they “have gone beneath the letter and looked into the inner meaning.” He went on to say that being enslaved to a literal interpretation of Scripture is an erroneous exegetical and theological method.6 Scripture is filled with metaphors, figures of speech, symbols, and types.7 We find in Scripture all that we need to know about the meaning and practice of baptism both explicitly and implicitly.
Credobaptists challenge paedobaptists8 on their view of baptism by asking for explicit verses proving that infants are commanded to be baptized or that baptism should be done by sprinkling or affusion. But Jesus did not respond to the Sadducees “who deny that there is a resurrection” with an explicit statement of resurrection to prove his point. Rather he said, “But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him’” (Luke 20:27, 37–38). Jesus proved his point by deduction from the implication of what the text teaches, rather than an explicit statement of resurrection.
Understanding any doctrine takes thought and making connections. Rather than just exegeting the use of one word, such as “baptism,” we need to look at the larger theological concept of how God has progressively revealed himself through his covenant to his people corporately, culminating in Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit. It involves looking at the historical and theological context of the meaning of baptism and how it relates to the rest of the Bible. It means viewing the whole Bible as a unity, so that understanding one part needs to be done in light of the whole. J.I. Packer states that accepting the Bible as God’s Word means “harmonizing and integrating all that Scripture declares.”9
Baptism needs to be studied in the context of all the Bible’s teaching on humanity’s relationship with God. The New Testament determines this as one looks at the various contexts in which baptism is referenced. Ralph Smith enumerates three types of passages that refer us to the relationship of baptism to the Old Testament.
First, the ministry of John the Baptist, a transitional figure from the old dispensation preparing for the new covenant, who practiced a baptism ceremony consistent with cleansing rites given through Moses (Matt. 11:11–14; cf. Matt. 17:11–13; Luke 3:3–16; John 1:19–27).
Second, old covenant ceremonial washings referred to as “baptisms” (Mark 7:1–8; Heb. 9:10). Paul similarly referred the Corinthians, who were troubled by baptism (1 Cor. 1:11–17), to the relevance of the Old Testament to baptism in regard to Israel being baptized into Moses as they crossed the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:2).
Third, the most significant passages that refer to baptism as analogous to circumcision (Col. 2:11–12), and the Lord’s Supper (a new covenant [1 Cor. 11:25]) as analogous to the Passover (Luke 22:15ff; 1 Cor. 5:7ff), as covenantal ceremonies.
For these reasons, we are obligated to consider the teaching of the whole Bible on baptism. We cannot dichotomize the Bible into two books and two religions, one for those before the coming of Christ and one for those after his coming. Rather, the Bible is one book that emerged as a continually developing special revelation from God that closed with the Apostles. The teaching throughout the New Testament is that the new covenant is the fulfillment of the old covenant, and that we are saved by the same faith as that of Abraham through the essentially same eternal covenant. Thus, we can only understand the new covenant ceremonies in the context of their fulfillment of the old covenant rites.10
The approach taken in this study on baptism begins with exploring the covenant, as it is foundational to understanding the purpose and meaning of baptism, and especially how it forms the basis for the practice of infant baptism. Next, a more detailed explanation of the meaning of baptism clears up many misinterpretations that are played out in its practice. Having a correct understanding of the meaning of baptism leads to how baptism relates to our salvation, as many confuse the sign with the thing signified. Does it mean that a child who dies in infancy is lost if not baptized? After the meaning is clarified, we can proceed to understanding why infant baptism continues the covenantal sign given in the Abrahamic covenant into the new. Expositions of key texts prove that covenant children are included in the church and should therefore receive the sign of the covenant. Certainly Christian parents feel the need to give their child to God and to receive his blessing, but we demonstrate that there is no biblical basis for child dedication services as an alternative to baptism.
Having established the rationale for infant baptism, we proceed to study the mode of baptism, which clearly exemplifies its meaning of purification from sin and in-filling with the Holy Spirit. As the Spirit is poured out upon us, we receive an anointing to serve as prophet, priest, and king, as had Jesus before us in his baptism. Careful study of the words and examples of the practice of baptism demonstrate its consistency with the mode of sprinkling or effusion.
Many questions arise related to the baptism one has already received, especially regarding whether baptism should ever be repeated. The validity of certain “baptisms” is discussed. Then, the spiritual significance of baptism as a continuing sacrament is defined and explained. Finally, the value of baptism throughout our Christian life provides encouragement and assurance to our faith in Christ with its many spiritual benefits.