October 21, 2011 § 2 Comments
On July 27, 2011, my wife and I were blessed beyond measure with the birth of our son, Nathaniel. Since he is our first child, he came with him a host of new challenges and decisions, one of which was the inevitable question of baptism. My wife (who grew up Lutheran) and I (who grew up quasi-Mennonite) grew up with different practices and beliefs about baptism, and we’ve had many conversations about it. These discussions were entirely academic until our son came into the world and placed us immediately in the concrete moment of decision. There was no getting around this one; this is definitely a case of where “not to act is to act.” So, to get to the point, we have decided to baptize him, and I’d like to explain how I got there.
Unfortunately there was no way to make this decision without departing from one side of the family—in this case, mine. In the end, I think there is sufficient scriptural ambiguity to warrant different practices and still call it “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). But we did have to decide one way or the other, and this is how I came to it. (Rebekah has her own reasons, and she would explain it differently; but just because she grew up as a paedobaptist doesn’t mean she hasn’t thought this question through.) What follows is not intended to be an apologetic—I’m not really interested in convincing anyone to change their view. All I wanted was to articulate a clear answer to the question, “Why do you want to baptize your son?”
As we discussed this issue, I kept coming back to one question: What is baptism? Why an infant ought to be granted or denied baptism depends on the answer to this first question. Interestingly, I also found that I couldn’t explore the theology of baptism without simultaneously exploring my understanding of the gospel as a whole. All in all, it became a rather large question.
So what is baptism? The New Testament speaks of baptism in different ways. I won’t go into all of them, but I’ll try touch on the pertinent ones for this particular discussion.
Union with Christ
Paul speaks about baptism in terms of our union with Christ, that in baptism, we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. So what do we mean by union with Christ? One important passage, though not explicitly baptismal, is found in 2 Corinthians:
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. . . . So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (5:14-15, 17)
This passage is actually rather staggering. If Christ died for all people, then all people have died. Can we ignore the universal scope of Christ’s death? Paul links Christ’s death with a death all people die, and then connects this with being remade as a new creation in Christ. Though Paul does not speak here of baptism, he speaks of being united to Christ in his death and raised to new life in his resurrection. This is already done, and, in some mysterious way, all humanity has already been implicated in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is also made quite clear in Romans 5:
If, because of the one man’s [Adam’s] trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (5:17-21).
Paul is presenting Christ as the “New Adam.” The “Old Adam” was the head of the old humanity, but Christ is now the head of the new humanity (cf. Col. 1:15-20). Once again, Paul speaks of all this as something both that has already been accomplished in Christ, and that somehow includes all humanity. Union with Christ in this sense is about participating in something that God has done in Christ for all.
Now, what does all this have to do with baptism? We see where Paul takes this, immediately following the passage quoted above:
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin (6:1-7).
Considering Paul’s language in Romans 5, it is not surprising that someone might take it to mean that the all-inclusive, already-completed work of Christ means “Well, Christ has done it all, I guess I can keep on sinning!” Paul anticipates this. The interesting thing is how he frames his answer. He never says, “Well, Christ has done a lot for you, but you still need to meet him halfway.” No, he meant what he said in Romans 5, and Christ’s work really is all-encompassing. The issue for Paul is that we have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, so if we keep on sinning we become a contradiction in terms. We are living out of sync with our baptismal identity. For Paul, the we have actually become new people; our “old self was crucified with Christ.” That is who we are. But we are only this by merit of what Christ has already done. Christ has died, was buried, and has been raised; we are baptized into all of this.
Baptism is about being united to Christ, incorporated into Christ, participating in what Christ has already accomplished, and recieving a new identity in him. This also comes out in Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12). Baptism, to quote T. F. Torrance, is “the sacrament of what Christ has done on our behalf when he incorporated himself into our humanity and acted in our place and in our name before God” (Atonement, 192). Baptism is first and foremost about what God has done for us in Christ.
Incorporated into Christ’s Body
It seems only logical that if we are all baptized into union with Christ, then we are also baptized into communion with one another. We all have the same Lord; we are all part of the new humanity of Christ. Nowhere is this better expressed than in Ephesians 4:4-6: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Paul has just urged them to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3). But he doesn’t say, “Make yourself united,” but rather to maintain the unity that has already been established. All the things that are “one” are connected. All these things are “one” because they ultimately come from the one God. There are not many baptisms, but one baptism. There are not many bodies, but one body. Because there are not many lords, but one Lord. When we are incorporated into Christ in our baptism, like it or not, we are incorporated into Christ’s body, the church. When the church is divided, we are not living as the baptized community of faith. We are living as though we are many bodies, but there is only one body. We are baptized into that one body of the one God, Father, Son, and Spirit.
Paul addresses this when he writes the Corinthian church, “Each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:12-13). These questions are obviously rhetorical. Christ has not been divided. Paul was not the one crucified. The people were not baptized in the name of Paul. People are segregating themselves, claiming allegiance to this or that Christian leader. But Paul’s point is that these divisions are incongruous with their baptism: they were baptized in the name of Christ, and Christ will not be divided. Later in the letter he spells it out more clearly: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13).
Baptism, therefore, is an unavoidably communal event. We can’t be baptized and remain outside of the church community. We cannot be united to Christ and remain separate from Christ’s body. To quote Torrance again, “baptism is the sacrament of what Christ has done within the covenant community and is therefore the sacrament of inclusion into the covenant community” (Atonement, 192).
Response to the Gospel
The New Testament also portrays baptism as the human response to believing the gospel message. It is our “Yes” to God’s “Yes” to us. This comes out most clearly in Acts, as the early church spreads throughout Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (1:8). We frequently find the sequence: belief, repentance, baptism. Perhaps the most complete and concise statement about baptism in this regard appears immediately after Peter’s Pentecost sermon:
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:37-39).
Peter had just finished preaching to the people, and they evidently believed what they heard. They have a very practical question: “What should we do?” What is the proper response to hearing and believing the gospel? Peter answers, “Repent and be baptized.” He then identifies two blessings that come with it: the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Finally, he adds that “the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
This last line is particularly instructive here. That the promise is “for your children” and “for all who are far away” indicates the two basic ways that the church will grow, namely, through evangelism and procreation. This is really no different than how Judaism was sustained and spread. A foreigner could choose to join the Jewish covenant community, but there was never any question of whether a Jewish baby would join that community.
“You,” “your children,” and “all who are far away” are really subcategories of “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” This emphasizes, yet again, that God is the primary actor. Even in a passage that closely links baptism with a conscious response to faith in the gospel, the response is still something that follows God’s call. Indeed, there is always a certain amount of passivity in baptism. Note that no one never baptizes themselves; a person receives baptism (“Repent and be baptized!”). This passivity is more pronounced in the discussion of union with Christ and incorporation into the body, but even here it is not absent.
This still leaves the question of the relation between faith and baptism. Must baptism be preceded by a conscious confession of faith for it to be valid? This is usually the first question in the baptism debate, but I don’t think it can properly be answered without working through some of the larger questions of baptism, as I have attempted here. What I have written so far is the result of how I worked through the issues. I might be wrong, but I don’t think anything I’ve said so far necessitates one baptismal practice over the other. I’d like to think that a paedobaptist and a credobaptist alike could affirm what I’ve already said while remaining theologically consistent with their own practice. Nevertheless, we did eventually have to make a decision, and so I think I can finally address the question of infant baptism in particular.
Scripture is clear that there is a necessary connection between faith and baptism, but it never spells out exactly how the two are related. Here are some considerations—not arguments why you should practice infant baptism, but the line of thinking that brought me there.
• Baptism is primarily about what God has done for us in Christ. Our faith and trust in Jesus always comes secondary—both qualitatively and chronologically—to the faithfulness of Jesus himself. Often the arguments against infant baptism are based on subverting this insight. Believers’ baptism can certainly be practiced in a way that acknowledges the primacy of God’s action, but infant baptism seems like a more natural expression of it.
• Baptism ought never to be divorced from the church. We are never baptized into a “me and Jesus” relationship. We are baptized into Christ, and therefore we are incorporated into the body of Christ. We cannot have one without the other. It seems reasonable to treat those whom we have incorporated into the body like they have also been incorporated into Christ himself. I don’t think we ever really treat “children of the church” as if they are somehow excluded from our church fellowship, so to me it makes sense to treat them as if they are also included in Christ. This strongly suggests baptism.
• Baptism ought never to be divorced from discipleship (Matt 28:19). This is closely tied to its relationship to the church. Anyone baptized into the community of faith should be raised and instructed in the faith. All members of the body will falter at one time or another, and we all depend on the support of the body for encouragement and help. Yes, we have a responsibility as baptized believers to follow Christ. But we also have a responsibility as “baptist believers” to help our fellow Christians grow in faith. When the church can no longer be a community of discipleship, it should seriously question its role as a “community of baptizers.” Any baptismal practice, therefore, should presuppose the practice of discipleship. The faith confessed by the believer in baptism expresses the candidate’s intention to be discipled; the faith confessed by the parents in infant baptism expresses the community’s intention to disciple the child.
• The church grows either by gaining converts or growing families. The baptismal “test cases” we see in the New Testament deal exclusively with the former. We should therefore be careful how much weight we put on the apostolic practice recorded in Acts. We should, however, make reference to Acts as a control over our theology of baptism. If we come up with a view of baptism that allows for infants but contradicts what we see in Acts, we are in trouble. I believe the theology of baptism outlined above, however, makes room both for infant baptism and for what we see in Acts.
It probably would have been possible to think through all these points in terms of believers’ baptism, but that is not where I ended up. In the end, whatever our practice is, we need to practice it responsibly. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Infant baptism always threatens to separate baptism from faith, just as adult baptism always threatens to destroy the baptismal grace founded in Christ’s word alone” (“The Question of Baptism,” in DBWE 16, 567). Wherever we land on this issue, we cannot think that by adopting the “right” practice we are somehow in the clear. Baptism is the beginning of a lifelong journey of discipleship and faith.
My apologies for that somewhat lengthy and slightly technical discussion. I’d like to bring it all together now and answer the question suggested by the title of this post: Why do I want to baptize my son?
I want to baptize my son because I strongly believe that Christ has died for him, and, what’s more, Christ has been raised for him too. God has already acted graciously and decisively in Christ on Nathaniel’s behalf. I want Nathaniel to receive his identity from Christ and to be united to Christ in his death and resurrection, being freed from sin and being made new.
I want to baptize my son because he has been born into the community of the baptized. He will be raised in the faith in the community of faith. From his very earliest days, I want him to be included in the covenant community. He may have a lot of growing to do, but he is still part of the body of Christ!
I want to baptize my son because I believe that his “Yes” to God can only be made because of God’s “Yes” to him in Christ. Nathaniel may waver in faith throughout his life (don’t we all?); yet even if we are faithless, still God will remain faithful. I want Nathaniel’s faith to be built on the unshakable faithfulness of Christ.
I want to baptize my son: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Gal. 3:26-27)