Understanding Baptism

Understanding Baptism
[Click here to listen to the podcast version, or tune in to The Word at Westminster wherever you subscribe.]

This post and podcast explains the meaning of baptism and who we baptize at Westminster Church (adults and also small children or infants if one parents is a believer and member of the congregation), along with the rationale for that ancient practice.

I should note that in points four to six below I draw heavily from a document created by Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. The rest is from my own research and study.

Let me begin with a historic faith statement from the 16th century called the Heidelberg Catechism. I think it sets the tone well and gets us into the right frame of mind. Question 1 asks: “What is your only comfort in life and death? Answer: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Let’s begin.

1. Important, but not necessary for salvation

As we begin, it is important to highlight that the Bible does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8). While baptism is an important sacrament and is a part of our faithful response to what God has done for us, it is not what puts us into a right relationship with God.

Some people cite Mark 16:16 to make the case that baptism is in fact necessary for salvation. It says: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” However, this verse is not in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts of the New Testament. It appears in Bibles in brackets or as a footnote and is not a part of the authoritative, inspired text of Scripture.

2. Not a reason to divide

Through the ages people have held varying beliefs about baptism. In my view this is not an issue that needs to divide churches. I am not alone in this thought. It is a widely-held view. There may be reasons for Christians to part ways because of a different understanding of essential doctrinal matters; this is not one of them.

I will say, however, that what I’m about to present is widely accepted and widely practiced throughout many parts of the world.

3. What is baptism?

Baptism was practiced in the Bible. John the Baptist baptized people in the Jordan River (Matthew 3:6). Jesus himself was baptized by John (Matthew 3:15-16).

After his resurrection Jesus gave this command to his disciples, often called the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Ever since people have been baptized with these words and with water. People are submerged in rivers or tubs, or they have water placed or splashed on their heads.

There are varying debates about how exactly baptism is to occur. Some argue that only “full immersion” is real baptism. Others argue that a tub of water doesn’t count, and that the water needs to be a part of a real body of water for it to be real. I’ll leave those debates for another day. In the New Testament, the exact manner isn’t prescribed. The consistent elements are the formula (in the name of the Triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit), that water is used, and that thought be given to the meaning of what is happening. That is what this post and podcast will discuss.

In short, baptism is something Christians do in obedience to Jesus’ command.

Yes, but what does it actually mean?

Baptism has many different meanings. Imagine picking up a diamond and holding it up to the sun. The light reflects and refracts onto the wall in different places. In a similar way, baptism is an event which means several different (but related) things at the same time.

But before I share its meaning, let me be clear about something. The water is not magic juice that gets you into heaven. As stated already, what makes us right with God—both in this life and the next—is God’s grace through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8).

Having quickly touched on that common misconception, here are the meanings.

a. Baptism symbolizes our union with God

We are baptized with water “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). In Galatians 3:27 Paul writes: “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ…”

To take on someone’s name is to be united with them. It is to be clothed with them. That is what happens in baptism.

b. Baptism is a sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ

In Romans 6:3-4 Paul writes: “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.”

In this way, baptism is a dying to the old self and being alive in Christ. It is the formal beginning of a life following him. In the words of Swiss theologian Karl Barth: “Baptism is the first step of the way of a Christian life which is shaped looking to Jesus Christ.”[i]

Alvaro De Silva writes: “Readiness to die—or, better, the realization that baptism signals death and the beginning of new life—is the foundation of Christian living…”[ii]

Eugene Peterson is the pastor who rendered the Bible into contemporary English. He called it The Message. In his memoir he talks about his son, Eric. Eric grew up to become a pastor himself. At the end of funerals he would say “So-and-so has completed his (or her) baptism.”[iii] Through life we die to ourselves and come alive in Christ, so too in death, but in a new and brilliant way. Baptism captures this in an act.

c. Baptism symbolizes the forgiveness of sin

John the Baptist came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). In this way it has long been associated with forgiveness. However, Christian baptism is not the same as what John was doing in the Jordan River. His work happened before Jesus gave the Great Commission (mentioned previously) and before the rest of the New Testament was written.

Even still, baptism continued to be closely connected with forgiveness. In Peter’s well-known sermon at Pentecost he proclaimed: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39).

This meaning picks up on the washing imagery with water. We are washed of sin. The water doesn’t physically do that, of course; only the blood and sacrifice of Jesus does that. But the water depicts this forgiveness symbolically.

d. Baptism signifies the gift of the Holy Spirit

Building on what Peter taught at Pentecost, baptism is something which outwardly confirms the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

When we believe in Jesus as the risen Lord and become a disciple, the Holy Spirit begins to live within us and work through us. The waters of baptism symbolize this. Referring to the Holy Spirit, Jesus himself taught that “rivers of living water will flow from within” those who believe in him (John 7:38). The timing of the Holy Spirit indwelling a Christian does not necessarily correspond to the exact moment of baptism, but baptism symbolically captures this reality.

e. Baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace

That is the wording from the Westminster Confession. It is rooted in the idea of covenant.

In the Bible, God enters into a relationship with his people through covenants. A covenant is like a sacred contract or bond. For example, in Genesis 17:7 we read: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.”

The visible sign of this covenant was the circumcision of male babies. This showed that they were a full part of the covenant people of God. At a marriage, a ring is a sign of the covenant between husband and wife. In the Old Testament, the sign of the covenant was circumcision. In the New Testament, baptism replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant (see Colossians 2:11-12). It now occurs, however, for both males and females.

Therefore, baptism is a sign of the covenant between God and his people.

In a passage about baptism in Galatians 3:29 Paul writes that we are “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” John Calvin taps in to this language of adoption when discussing baptism. Think of one family taking in another family, including their children. The family who is being taken in, along with their children, are now a part of the new household and receive all its benefits, including food in the fridge, security, and a warm hearth. The children receive these graces even though they don’t yet fully know what is happening. Christian children, Calvin writes: “were received as children through a solemn symbol of adoption before they were old enough to recognize him [God] as Father.”[iv] I think that’s a helpful perspective on the covenant and children.

In addition, baptism marks a person’s formal entry into the household of God, the church. When an infant or young child is baptized they are called “covenant members,” because they are a part of God’s covenant people and have therefore received the sign of this covenant (baptism). When the child grows up, it is important that they continue to learn about the faith and make a personal profession of that faith in Christ.

To summarize these five points about the meaning of baptism, it symbolizes our union with God; it is a sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ; it symbolizes the forgiveness of sin; it signifies the gift of the Holy Spirit; and it is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace.

4. Who we baptize

Let’s get more specific. At Westminster Church we baptize two groups of people.

The first group consists of men, women, and children who demonstrate both a genuine faith in Jesus Christ and a desire to join the church family. This is sometimes called “believer’s baptism.” The person making the decision (the believer) has made the decision themselves.

The second group consists of infants and children if at least one parent is a believer and a professing member of the congregation. This is sometimes called “infant baptism,” “paedo-baptism,” or “covenant baptism.” The rationale is closely linked to the idea of covenant explained above. But let’s get into more detail.

5. Rationale for baptizing infants and children

I am convinced—as is much of the global, historic church—that both the Bible and early church support the practice of household baptism, which includes infants and young children.

This section is a bit longer. I wanted to include it because some people come from traditions which have not practiced covenant baptism. Therefore, I wanted to provide sufficient background and explanation.

As discussed previously, believers are in a covenant relationship with God. God promises to be their God and we promise to be his people. This covenant extends to the children of believers. Children of believers aren’t excluded from the covenant because they are not yet old enough to make that decision.

In the New Testament, baptism replaces circumcision as the sign of that covenant. Colossians 2:11-12 teaches that baptism is the full expression of circumcision. The covenant of circumcision required that the infant male be circumcised as a newborn infant (Genesis 17:12), and this covenant was to be an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:13). Physical circumcision is clearly no longer in effect (Galatians 6:11-18), but the covenant it represents is still in effect (Romans 2:29). The new outward sign of this “everlasting” covenant with believers and their children is baptism (Colossians 2:11-12). Therefore, we believe it follows, then, that baptism is to be administered to the children of a parent who believes if they wish to do so.

Acts 2:38-39 describes baptism with virtually the same language and terms with which Genesis 17 describes circumcision. Peter says: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” The promise connected in this passage explicitly includes the children of believers, as did the promise connected with circumcision in Genesis 17. No mention of a required age or profession of faith is made with respect to such children.

As circumcision was a requirement for the Old Testament household so, we believe, was baptism for the New Testament household. Lydia’s entire household was baptised in Acts 16:15 as was the household of the converted jailer in Acts 16:33. Approximately one quarter of the baptisms mentioned in the New Testament are household baptisms. Never once are children said to be excluded from a household baptism.

There is no biblical command given for believers to cease the application of the covenant sign with their children.

Further, in the New Testament, believers’ children were regarded as members of the covenant community. For example, in Luke 18:15-17, Jesus said that God’s kingdom belongs to little children (from the Greek brephe, which literally means “baby” or “infant”). In Ephesians 6:1-4 and Colossians 3:20-21 Paul addresses children (from the Greek tekna, meaning “child”) as believers in Christ. He speaks to them as he would any saint, regardless of age. In 1 Corinthians 7:14 Paul refers to the children (tekna) of believers as “holy” (meaning set apart for God). The word translated “holy” (hagia) is the exact same word used elsewhere by the apostles in reference to believers (translated “saints” – see Ephesians 1:1, for example).

The New Testament assumption, then, is that children of believers should be regarded and treated as believers unless or until they prove themselves to be covenant breakers. Kevin DeYoung picks up on this when he writes: “Children in the church are not treated as little pagans to be evangelized, but members of the covenant who owe their allegiance to Christ.”[v]

The New Testament nowhere suggests that the sign of the covenant (previously circumcision, now baptism) is to be withheld from the children of believers until they make an informed profession of faith in Christ.

It should be noted, however, that when a child is baptized as an infant or small child, they are in fact encouraged to make a personal profession of faith in Christ when they become old enough to do so. At Westminster we call this “confirmation.” They are confirming their faith in Christ. When this happens they become a “professing member” of the congregation.

6. The historic practice of the church

Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John. He speaks of infant baptism as a universal practice in the early church. Tertullian lived at the end of 2nd century. He acknowledged the universal practice of infant baptism. Origen lived in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. He also spoke of infant baptism as the common practice of the early church.

If household and infant baptism was not the New Testament church practice, then the conclusion must be made that a full reversal of the early church’s practice occurred immediately following the death of the last apostle. But since there is neither biblical nor extra-biblical evidence indicating so much as a debate about this issue in the first or second centuries, such a reversal is extremely unlikely.

What is more likely is that household baptism was taking place in the New Testament, that it included infants, and that the practice continued in the early church as is documented and without so much as a mention of disagreement or controversy (until the modern period).

There is a lot of documentation about virtually every theological debate and/or alleged “heresy” in the early church; the issue of baptizing infants is not among them and is never mentioned, except to say that it is practiced. The practice continued through the centuries and was supported by Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin.

In more recent times, some denominations have questioned the practice. But this does not negate the biblical arguments and historic practice of the early church and beyond. If a family wants to wait for a child to be baptized when older, that is perfectly acceptable. Some traditions don’t perform infant or child baptisms. Instead they have “dedications.” I think that’s a wonderful thing. Personally, I have friends who practice infant baptism and some do not. We respect each other’s positions and proceed according to our conscience.

In the Reformed Protestant tradition (of which Westminster is a part), if a believing parent wants a child or infant to be baptized as a sign of belonging to the covenant people of God, that is acceptable. At that time, not only does the parent confess their faith anew and promise to raise their child in home and fellowship of the church, but the congregation promises to pray for and support the child as well.

My friend and colleague Matt Brough wrote a book called Let God be God. In it he writes: “When a child is presented to God for baptism or dedication, we can’t point to the power of her action or her faith as a basis for her relationship with God. She is totally dependent on God for that. The baby is claimed as God’s child. The church proclaims that she is a part of God’s covenant of grace, that she is as much one of Abraham’s descendants as anyone else, that she is a recipient of God’s promises alongside all the saints that have gone before. None of this is the baby’s own doing, nor is it the Church’s, or even the parents. The child’s inheritance in God’s kingdom, her justification through the death and resurrection of Christ, her righteousness, is given completely through the grace of God, which we pray she will one day receive and claim for herself in faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit.”[vi]

Well said.

7. A sacrament

Having talked about the meaning of baptism, who we baptize, and also the rationale, let me say a short word about the meaning of the word “sacrament.” After all, we call both baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist) sacraments.

Both of these actions are commanded by Jesus. As the word itself suggests, a “sacrament” is something sacred. It is holy, meaning it is set apart from ordinary things for a special, godly purpose. They are a sign and a seal of God’s grace and goodness in our lives through Christ. Tim Keller provides this explanation: “They are both signs and seals. We call them signs because they symbolize the blessings of salvation, forgiveness for sins, reception of the Holy Spirit, and the ability to commune with Jesus Christ in his presence. But they’re not only signs; they’re also seals. That means they actually bring these blessings to us. They assure us and stir up our faith, and it’s our faith that receives those blessings.”[vii]

In the 17th century, puritan Thomas Watson commented on the power of seeing and experiencing the act of baptism. It is something we do which communications—in deed—the good news of Christ in our lives. “In the Word preached [believers] hear Christ’s voice,” he wrote; “in the sacrament they have his kiss.”

Yes, in the Lord’s Supper and baptism, it is as if we see the love and goodness of God poured out into our lives simply but dramatically acted out. They are “visible expressions of the gospel, given as a means of entering and sustaining the Christian life.”[viii]

8. Summary

Let me offer a quick summary.

Baptism is important, but not necessary for salvation. It is not a reason to divide among Christians. Baptism is commanded by Jesus and symbolizes our union with God; it is a sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ; it symbolizes the forgiveness of sin; it signifies the gift of the Holy Spirit; and it is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, administered to adults, or to their children when at least one parent is a believer. This is always their own choice.

I hope this blog and podcast have been helpful. I have enjoyed putting it all together and am reminded again of the profound depths of God’s love for his people in Christ.

My wife was baptized as an adult. I myself was baptized when I was three months old. I still have the certificate commemorating the day. Maybe it’s weird, but every time I’m in the shower I splash myself in the face with water three times to remind myself that I’ve been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. I belong to the Lord and will live for him.

I have baptized infants, and I have baptized youths and adults. I love when they confess their faith in Jesus. And I love when parents re-state their faith and present a child as a part of the covenant of grace in God’s family and household. Are there greater moments than these?

Let me end with that same question from the Heidelberg Catechism with which we began: “Question: What is your only comfort in life and death? Answer: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.”


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