If there is one topic that Christian theologians have overcomplicated, then it is baptism. Debate and division have flared across denominational lines. Should we baptise infants or adults? Which mode to use when we baptise?
And then there’s the important debate of whether we require baptism for salvation (that is to go to heaven). Some denominations teach that baptism is a sacrament and is vital for salvation. The word sacrament refers to a means by which God dispenses grace.
Confusingly, however, this term sacrament is applied in error. The sacrament becomes the thing that saves you – which leads you to the conclusion that you can work your way into heaven. Let me put it straight here, we are not and can not be saved by works, even if they come in form of a sacrament. Only our faith in Jesus, only believing that he died for our sin offers salvation. (Read Galatians chapter 3, verses 10 & 11)
Ironically, the word grace means undeserved favour of God. There is nothing we can do to earn the grace of God. We don’t deserve it.
Where does baptism come from?
The Old Testament books of Leviticus and Numbers introduced the idea of ritual washing. They required it of the Israelites living under the Old Testament Law, when they touched the deceased, or people with a certain disease, or objects culturally deemed ceremonially unclean.
When Gentiles wanted to convert to Judaism, they had to take up Jewish customs and doctrines, such as being circumcised. In addition, during the intertestamental period, a practice had developed which required such Gentiles to be baptised. This type of baptism was a ceremonial bath of purification, known as “proselyte baptism”. This was done because they considered such Gentiles ceremonially unclean, in contrast to the people born Jewish.
It is in this backdrop that John the baptizer introduced a new type of baptism. John called the Jewish people into a right relationship with God, employing baptism of repentance. (Luke 3:3) Jewish people were honestly to repent of their sin and turn their life towards God. They symbolically had their hearts washed by a ceremonial bath in a river or pool of water. Thus cleansing them from their sin. This was being done to prepare them, to usher in the messianic age (as prophesied in Jeremiah 31 verses 31 to 34, and other messianic prophecies).
Since John the baptizer, baptised Jews and not Gentiles, this was controversial in the eyes of the Jewish religious leaders.
Baptism in the time of the early church
The baptism of John became the foundation on which the apostles later taught baptism. Repentance is central to a healthy understanding of New Testament baptism. (For a deeper look at what repentance means, click here.)
However, New Testament baptism signified much more than John’s baptism. It’s not just about repentance.
The connection between circumcision and baptism
Dr Michael S Heiser, on his Naked bible podcast episode 001, makes an excellent analogy to help us debunk the overcomplicated teachings on baptism. Everything you say about the meaning of New Testament baptism, you should be able to say about the meaning of Old Testament circumcision. We see this close connection in Paul’s letter to the Colossians:
“in whom also you were circumcised with a circumcision not made by hands, by the removal of the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which also you were raised together with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead”(Col 2:11–12 LEB)
We can read the biblical pattern that when God enters a covenant of redemptive promises with his people, he will give them an external sign. The rainbow was a sign of the promise God gave, never to destroy the world by a flood. Similarly, circumcision was a sign given to Abraham and his descendants to remind them of the Old Testament covenant made with Abraham.
Circumcision was God’s way to say to the nation of Israel that he is cutting them out from the rest of fallen humanity. If they should fail to be faithful to the covenant, it would cut them out from the covenant promise of God.
As circumcision was the sign for the Old Testament covenant, so baptism is the sign for the New Testament covenant. In essence, baptism signifies that you are set apart, or cut out from the Kingdom of this earth and now belong to the Kingdom of Heaven. It becomes an act of spiritual warfare declaring to the powers of darkness that you no longer belong to them.
However, just as Old Testament circumcision could not prevent a Jew from lusting after another God (and thus apostatizing), baptism can not prevent someone from abandoning one’s beliefs or allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven.
In both cases, it is God who institutes the sign. The unbroken totality of the sign is not dependent on the person who administers or receives the sign. Its promises rest completely in the sovereignty of God. Subsequently, if, for example, the person who administers the sign apostatizes, it does not require the sign to be re-administered. God is the one who stands behind the promises.
Just as the pictured signboard points towards wild horses, the sign itself is not a wild horse. In the same manner, baptism points towards salvation but is not salvation. We can say the same about circumcision.
Should we baptise infants or only adults?
The church of today teaches two different types of baptism.
- Believer’s Baptism
- Infant Baptism
Believer’s Baptism is the baptism of a person old enough to make a choice for Jesus. (in most cases from the age of 15 – depending on the denomination) Baptism is administered to a person who has confessed his or her faith in Jesus.
Infant Baptism is the baptising of a baby or child below the age of religious maturity (14 years or younger depending on denomination). Parents choose to raise the child in the faith until the child comes to age and can confirm or reject this faith. In such denominations, they see confirmation as the event, by which the child accepts his or her infant baptism and confesses their faith in Jesus.
While scripture points towards the fact that adults were baptized after coming to the faith, some bible passages testify they baptized entire households. It is not clear if they included infants in this group of people.
(Acts 16:15 , 1 Cor 1:16)
Wile Old Testament circumcision is similar in meaning to New Testament baptism, there are some differences, especially in the mode and application. In contrast to Old Testament Circumcision where parents had to bring their 8-day old baby, there is no command in the New Testament to baptize infants.
This leaves open the debate whether we should only baptise adults, or whether we should include infants in the sacrament of baptism.
Subsequently, if baptism is viewed symbolically, and is not brought forward as a guarantee for salvation, then infant baptism (including the confirmation which takes place later) is as valid as a believer’s baptism.
How should baptism be done?
Many conflicting opinions exist regarding the mode that should be used for baptism. There’s sprinkling, pouring, dipping once, dipping three times. Even the type of water to be used is specified in some of the creeds.
The main confusion comes with the Greek word “baptizo” which is translated as baptism. This word can have more than one definitive meaning, in the way this word is used in several bible scriptures. Sometimes it could be seen as an immersion in water, while in others it could be considered a washing.
On top of this, some of the archaeological finds seem to show that the ancient church may have used pouring to baptize, possibly as this closely resembled the “washing” language used in the bible.
You can listen to Michael S. Heiser’s in-depth analogy on the mode to be used during baptism in the Naked Bible podcast episode 007, embedded below.
The bottom line, baptism is only a sign pointing towards something. The mode by which this sign is administered should not be something to cause division in the church, especially if there’s no obvious conclusion about what the mode should be.
What’s the point?
Since baptism is only a symbolic act and causes so much division within the body of Christ, what’s the point of it? Can we not simply discard baptism altogether?
The short answer is, no. Here’s why:
Baptism was a command given to us, along with the great commission, by Jesus himself. (Mt 28:19–20) (Mark 1: 4-8) (Luke 3: 3 – 16)
It, therefore, is an act of obedience.
When a believer falls into doubt, recalling his baptism has the benefit of reminding him on the day he accepted Christ to be the Lord over his life. The same can be said for his confirmation, in which he accepts his infant baptism.
Similar to circumcision, baptism has the function of placing the person to whom it is administered into the community of believers. It is here within this body of people that they can teach him or her about this relationship with God.
Baptism is not intended to wash the dirt from our body. It is intended as an appeal to God, for a clean and good conscience. (1. Peter 3:21) As such, its function lies in positioning our heart towards God, pointing us towards the right heart attitude. This is a posture in which we humbly accept that only by the blood of Christ are we purified. Thus we can stand in front of a just and holy God, in awe that the one who spoke the universe into existence paid the price to redeem us from sin.
We would honour Jesus not to let ambiguous parts of scripture divide the body of Christ. Lest we forget some of the lasts prayers of our saviour, Jesus.
“so that they may be one, just as we are”(Portion of John 17 verse 11 LEB)
Sources and references:
In composing this post, apart from the bible, I leaned on mainly three different sources of research material.
Two of these I happily reference below should you like to dig into this topic on your own.
Naked Bible Podcast, Episode 001 to 010 with Dr. Micheal S Heiser
For ease of use, I’ve embedded them all below.