Being Baptist: Another Look at Baptism

Being Baptist: Another Look at Baptism


Suggested Resource: "The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism Versus Paedobaptism" by Fred A. Malone.

We’ve taken a look at a Baptistic understanding of the covenants of Scripture and how they inform our approach to baptism (see it here). In light of our baptisms this past week it seemed like a good time to revisit the subject and offer more reflections with some greater detail on some of the pertinent points. We can’t cover it all here and there will be more posts on this subject in the future.

In this post we will take a quick look at:

1) The meaning of the word “baptism” and how it informs our understanding of the practice.

2) The subjects of baptism in light of our understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant in contrast to the approach taken to it by those who practice infant baptism.

3) Why this is an important discussion in the first place.


The meaning of the word

The word “baptize” is a Greek word that was transliterated rather than translated and which was subsequently adopted into the English language.  The root word baptō means “to dip” or “dipinto dye.” Baptizō is an intensive form of baptō and means “to dip” or “to immerse.” We find the word used in ancient writings to describe the washing of vessels by immersing them in water, the dying of fabric by dipping or immersing it in dye, and even to describe the sinking of ships.

When we look at the passages that describe baptism in the Scriptures, it is clear that immersion is what was practiced:

·      The word baptizō in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament to describe Naaman’s cleansing in 2 Kings 5:14:  “14 So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”

·      Jesus was in the river when he was baptized: Matthew 3:16 “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him.”

·      Reflecting on Mark 1:9 (“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan”), theologian D.A. Carson pointed out this simple fact: “You can dip someone in the water but you cannot sprinkle them into the water unless you have used a mincer beforehand!”

·      John the Baptist, often baptized in the Jordan River and chose places where water “was plentiful”: John 3:23 “John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized.”

·      Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water in order for the eunuch to be baptized: Acts 8:38 "And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him."

·      The imagery of being “buried in baptism” makes most sense if one is “buried” under the water: Col 2:12 “Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (see also Romans6:4).

The evidence is so compelling that it led even those identified with groups that practice sprinkling to admit that immersion is the proper mode:

·      Thomas Aquinas, Catholic priest, theologian and philosopher stated (Summa III, lxvi, 7): “The symbol of Christ’s burial is more expressively represented by immersion, and for that reason this mode of baptizing is more common and more commendable.”

·      Martin Luther wrote: “For this reason I would have those who are to be baptized completely immersed in the water, as the word says and as the mystery indicates. Not because I deem this necessary, but because it would be well to give to a thing so perfect and complete a sign that is also complete and perfect. And this is doubtless the way in which it was instituted by Christ. The sinner does not so much need to be washed as he needs to die, in order to be wholly renewed and made another creature, and to be conformed to the death and resurrection of Christ, with whom he dies and rises again through baptism.”

·      John Calvin wrote of baptism in his Institutes noting: “the word ‘baptize’ means to immerse, and it is clear that the rite of immersion was observed in the ancient church.”

·      John Wesley, in reporting of a baptism noted: “Mary Welsh, aged eleven days, was baptized, according to the custom of the first church and the rule of the Church of England, by immersion.”

Were there exceptions? Certainly, but they were just that: exceptions.

“The Didache” meaning “Teaching” is an anonymous Christian manual written possibly around 70 AD but most certainly before 300 AD. The full title of the work is “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” While it is not inspired, it provides us with a description of how baptisms were practiced during this time. It states: “Concerning baptism, baptize in this manner: Having said all these things beforehand, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living water (meaning, running water). If there is no living water, baptize in other water; and, if you are not able to use cold water, use warm. If you have neither, pour water three times upon the head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  Of note is the fact that the preferred method is for one to be baptized in running water (i.e., such as a river) and it is only after lacking that option, that someone might have water poured on their heads.

That said, a study of the Scriptures will find that the Greek words rantizō “to sprinkle” and eccheō, “to pour,” can be found in the New Testament but they are never used to describe baptism.


The Subjects

Everyone (those who practice infant baptism- “paedobaptism,”and those who practice believer’s baptism- “credobaptism”) agrees that those who have never been baptized, upon their coming to saving faith in Christ, should be baptized upon their confession of faith. There difference in opinion arises, however, when it comes to the treatment of the children of believing parents. Paedobaptists believe that the children ought to be baptized while credobaptists do not.

One of the main issues that divides us is that paedobaptists transfer the promises given to Abraham and his seed in the Abrahamic Covenant to believers and their seed in the New Covenant. They do this because they believe that the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant are two expressions of the same Covenant of Grace. Presbyterian theologian Louis Berkhof explains of the Abrahamic Covenant: “This covenant is still in force and is essentially identical with the ‘new covenant’ of the present dispensation” (Systematic Theology,633).

Their argument seems to carry weight when we read texts like:

·      “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Gal. 3:7-9).

·      “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29).

·      “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring-not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham who is the father of us all” (Romans 4:13-16).  

If we are Abraham’s children, should we not all receive the sign of being a child of Abraham- in the OT it was the circumcision of infant males, in the NT, the paedobaptist argues, it should be the baptism of all infants.

Before we get to discussing how Baptists understand our relationship as “the seed of Abraham,” let’s point to a couple of issues the paedobaptist argument brings up:

·      Why don’t we continue to practice circumcision?

·      Why don’t we only baptize males?

·      Those who were circumcised in Genesis 17 included not only Abraham’s sons, but “all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner” (vs. 27). This begs the question, why don’t we baptize the housekeepers of believers?

·      And how about the land promises that were a part of the Abrahamic covenant? Should we not claim Canaan as the rightful territory of all believers?

·      The Abrahamic covenant had stipulations: “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (vs. 14). Does this imply baptismal regeneration or that baptism is required to be saved?


With that said, in what way can it be said that we ARE Abraham’s children?

First, we believe that the Abrahamic promises were fulfilled in Christ: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).

Members of the New Covenant, are then Christ’s elect offspring: “when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring” (Isaiah53:10); “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us- for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’- so that in Christ the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14); “In Christ you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:26-29).

So, we argue that the seed promises to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ and through Christ to the elect offspring who are in union with Him by faith. It is in this way that “Abraham is the father of us all.” It is through faith in Christ that we are united to Abraham- not by birth. Notice what drives the argument of Romans 4:9-16:

9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. 13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.

It is clear that those who have Abraham as their father are those who have “the righteousness that he had by faith” and are those “who believe” (vs. 11), who “walk in the footsteps of faith” (vs. 12), are heirs due to faith (vs. 13), who “share the faith of Abraham” (vs. 16).


Once we see that membership in the New Covenant is based upon an individual’s faith rather than via birth (i.e., the “new birth” or “being born again” rather than being “born unto Christian parents”), it is clear that this is what was spoken of by the prophets all along. Jeremiah 31:29-24 reads:

29 In those days they shall no longer say: “‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.’ 30 But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge. 31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Notice that, with the New Covenant, God would no longer bring curses upon people for the sins of their fathers. Now, each would give account for their own sins.

Also notice that members of the New Covenant are those who1) have the law written on their mind and hearts, 2) they have God as their God and He has them as His own, 3) they will all know God, 4) they will be those who are forgiven and whose sins God will no longer remember.

Compare these characteristics to what the NT says about believers: “If you love me (Jesus), you will keep My commandments” (John14:15); “I (Paul) delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Romans 7:22); “No one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27); “I (Jesus) am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14); “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3); (Quoting Jeremiah 31) “’I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh...let us holdfast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Hebrews 10:17-20, 23).  

Ezekiel 36:24-27, tells of the New Covenant in terms of each member having a new heart:

"24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules."

All this points to the fact that to be a member of the New Covenant one must have faith. This rules out infants. And if infants cannot be members of the New Covenant, then why give them the New Covenant sign?  

There is much more to say, and we will certainly continue this conversation but, for now, let’s close by asking “Does it really matter?”

Does It Matter?

For some this seems like a lot of hoopla over something that really, in the final analysis, does not matter. Why should the body of Christ divide itself into denominations over this?

A couple of reasons:

1) The Regulative Principle. Quoting from a previous post :

The regulative principle of worship states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded upon specific directions of Scripture. As the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 puts it: “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures” (22.1). This gets to the heart of why Calvinistic Baptists separated from their Presbyterian brethren. Because the Bible does not command infant baptism, early Baptists believed that infant baptism is forbidden in public worship, and the baptism of believers alone is to be practiced in worship. This regulative principle of worship limits the elements of public worship to the Word preached and read, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, prayer, the singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and whatever else the Scripture commands.

Presbyterian theologians (Warfield, Berkhof, Murray) have admitted that there is no positive command for infant baptism in the Scriptures but their practice comes from "good and necessary inference" of Old Testament circumcision of infants. Baptists argue that they are making a mistake in finding an inference for something where the clear teaching contradicts it. Baptists would contend that we are the ones who can say that we are sticking to the regulative principle rather than seeking to make a way around it.

2) One of the basic marks of a Baptist church is that of a “regenerate church membership.” This simply means that the membership of a local church is composed only of those who are born again. Children of members are, therefore, not considered formal members of the local assembly until they profess faith. Why is this important? For one thing, our churches are congregational churches meaning that, while the church is led by elders, the final earthly authority is the congregation itself (see more here ). That being the case, the only way to protect the church is to ensure that those who are entrusted with congregational authority are those who are actually followers of Christ. It also means a great deal regarding the witness of the church to a watching world. If the church membership is composed of believers and non-believers, then the church will rightfully be accused of many wayward acts. Lastly, it leads to members believing they are Christians simply because they are members of the church when they are, in fact, not. Their participation in the Lord’s Supper, then, is a farce, a profaning of the table and a threat to their own welfare (see 1 Cor. 11:27-31) This, in the end, hinders the health of the church. A minister named John Tombes, writing on this topic in 1659, asks of infant baptism “Is there any evil in it?” He replies: “Infant-baptism tends much to harden People in presumption, as if they were Christians afore they know Christ, and hinders much the Reformation of Christian Churches, by filling them with ignorant and scandalous members, besides the great sin of profaning God's Ordinance.”

3) Most simply, we desire to promote the plain teaching of the Scriptures to the building up of the church. To say that it simply does not matter is to conclude that the Scriptures are not clear on the issue and non-committal themselves. As we have seen above and in our previous post, however, the differences between the two views are rather substantive and involve greatly diverging views on some key passages of the Scriptures which are anything but non-committal and vague. The issue is not whether the Scriptures present this subject as important or not, it is how we understand what they say we should take seriously! There are churches which do try to walk a middle road by permitting the families within their church to choose whichever baptismal approach they prefer. The only conclusion that one can come to is that those churches simply don’t understand that this is not simply a matter of preference and is only superficial in nature, but it gets to the heart of what we believe about what it means to be a member of the New Covenant and the implications of that for the individual and for the church.


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