Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Ordinance of Baptism: What is Proper

The Proper Subjects for Baptism – Baptism, by its nature, can only be appropriate for those who have made a personal faith commitment to Christ. This position leads to a conflict with those who believe in infant baptism.

Catholic belief in infant baptism is linked to the idea of removing the stain of original sin apart from faith. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli saw the importance of faith at baptism, but they did not surrender infant baptism because all three believed God acted in infant baptism. Luther said that in infant baptism God laid claim to the infant, giving the infant a hope. 

Calvin and Zwingli pointed to the faith of the parents and the church. Children were accepted as members of the covenant community on the basis of the faith of others, and it was presumed they were headed for salvation, though they must personally confirm that decision made for them at infant baptism. But what happens when a child does not decide to become a Christian? A strong practical reason the Magisterial Reformers held on to infant baptism was fear of anarchy and chaos resulting from dismantling the unity that church and state had in infant baptism.

Calvin and Zwingli also offered Biblical parallels to infant baptism: circumcision and the household baptisms of Acts. With the sign of circumcision, we would reply that it is not paralleled in baptism but in an inward spiritual reality of faith of the heart (Rom. 2:28-29; Col. 2:11), and if the parallel were true, it would only hold for male children anyway. On the parallel of household baptisms (Acts 16:31-34; 18:8), we say that all were baptized who believed, as the text indicates. Believers are the proper subjects of baptism.

The Proper time for Baptism – In Acts the proper time for baptism was normally immediately after conversion (Acts 2:38-41; 8:36-38), though it was not commanded nor always followed (Acts 4:4). Some wait a few weeks or longer to allow the convert to affirm his decision, to understand baptism more fully, and show evidence of conversion. 

In some churches, a new believer’s class is required before baptism. In the church of the 200s-300s, they were required to go through catechetical training and deliverance ministry before being baptized. I am personally moving toward a quicker baptism for candidates rather than waiting a long time. In the 18 texts mentioning baptism in Acts, 6 times it was immediate, 3 times it was soon, and 9 times there is no description of the timing.  It does not seem to have been that important.

The Proper Mode of Baptism – While sprinkling and pouring are used in some settings, the word baptize (Greek: baptizo) means plunge under water, or immerse. The NT descriptions of the baptized coming up out of the water (Mark 1:10; Acts 8:39) fit immersion, and the symbolic meaning is only portrayed in immersion (Romans 6:3-4). If sprinkling had been meant, there is a NT word for sprinkling: rantizo.

The Proper Administrator of Baptism – While Baptism has normally been assigned to pastors, there is no biblical reason for limiting it to them. Ordination is certainly not required, and since baptism is into Christ and the church, the local church should be seen as the baptizing agent, and free to assign anyone they choose to perform the baptism.

Adapted from material provided by John Hammett at Southeastern Seminary.